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North-South Corridor has exciting possibilities for Black Belt

REGION-For some time the idea of improvements to Highway 43 has been discussed as part of a North-South Trade Corridor. These ideas were discussed again recently when Demopolis Mayor Cecil P. Williamson paid a visit to the Marengo County Commission.

Local leaders had recently been asked to weigh in on the possibilities such a project could bring. Naturally, local leaders were behind the idea 100 percent. Their biggest goal was to form a united front and get the project to pass through the Black Belt.

Commission Chairman Freddie Armstead said they were recently contacted to give their input on the route the project should take and of course, they were hopeful the Black Belt would be in the plans.

“They wanted to know our opinion of where we would like to see the North South Corridor go and of course I said I would like to see it come through the Black Belt,” Armstead said. “I told them I would like to see it come right up Highway 43 to the Interstate.”

Armstead said he would first like to see the Highway 80 project completed.

“That is our first priority right now,” Armstead said. “I told them I would like to see this project come through here, but I would like to see that project completed first. Right now, that is our highest priority.”

Demopolis Mayor Cecil P. Williamson said she would like to see all leaders of the affected areas come together to get the project the attention it deserves.

“I think that it is going to behoove all of us to work together as hard as we can to get that North South Corridor to come through Marengo County,” Williamson said. “I have already talked to Mayor Raymond Steele in Eutaw and he is ready to sign on and I am hoping that we can get enough critical mass to get some attention to get Highway 43 completed from Thomasville to Interstate 20/59.”

The purpose of the corridor between I-20/59 in Eutaw and I-65 in Mobile is to connect city and rural areas. By doing so the area could attract new industries, including the development of tourism and retirement potential that would increase the population and possibilities for jobs.

There are several other projects on the table so naturally, it is important for leaders to respond as quickly as possible. Williamson said they should make their thoughts known as quickly as possible to get this project on target for the area. Williamson said as long as they could keep some portion of this project in the area it would lead to success.

“Primarily, we would like to get that done before the project gets started in Mobile,” Williamson said. “We would like to have it in Marengo County, but it would be good in the Black Belt period. Whatever is good in Eutaw is going to be good for Demopolis and whatever is good for Livingston is going to be good for Eutaw. I just think all of us in the Black Belt are in the same boat.”

Most local leaders have already made their thoughts known. However, the idea has been to go the extra mile. Marengo County Commissioner Ken Tucker said they should personally let officials know how important this project was for the Black Belt.

“Not only do I think each entity needs to respond individually, I think we need a master document,” Tucker said. “Something from up and down the corridor signed on to it. It also might be good for us to go before them.”

So many times the Black Belt has found themselves phased out of such projects, or placed on the back burner. Commissioner Max Joiner said leaders and citizens alike should take this plan very seriously because of the difference it could make.

“This is something that I had passed around to some of our business people in the South end of the county,” Joiner said. “I told them this is something they need to look at because we could be bypassed again.”

The proposed corridor could go right through the heart of the Black Belt passing through or near Greene, Sumter, Marengo, Hale, Choctaw, Wilcox, Clarke and Washington counties. The Federal Department of Transportations study on the project in 2003 showed the region has had a relatively stagnant population for decades due to migration. The region is now smaller than it was 30 years ago. The population of the seven counties was 131,320 in 1970, increasing to 134,870 in 1980 and then declining to 132,195 in 1990 and 128,607 in 2000. All the while opportunities have declined with the population. Generally, the seven counties included in the original plan have percentages of population below poverty as much as double the U.S. and Alabama.

This could all change with the construction of the corridor. The proposed improvements to U.S. Highway 43 would replace or upgrade the existing right of way to Interstate highway standards between I-20/59 near Eutaw and connecting to I-65 at Mobile. In the process the region would be opened up to four-lane accessibility so that it would spur interest in developable sites that have access to the rest of the Interstate highway system that is currently beyond reasonable reach of much of the Black Belt region. The study stated the absence of four-lane and or Interstate highway accessibility is viewed as the primary cause of the region’s isolation and lack of development.

Naturally, a project of this magnitude would be costly. The project is based on $10 million per mile or widening the existing two-lane sections between Thomasville and I-20/59 at an estimated cost of $3 million per mile. The replacement cost for all of U.S. Highway 43 between I-20/59 and I-65 would be nearly $1.6 billion. The existing two-lane section between I-20/59 and Thomasville could be replaced at an estimated cost of $740 million or alternatively widened to four lanes at an estimated cost of $220 million.

While the cost is high the price is a necessary evil when it comes to bringing economic development to the area. The studies overall results suggest that the region cannot grow without highway improvements that address the lack of four-lane access, which thwarts development unrelated to the region’s extensive forest reserves.

Highway improvements are only part of an initial step that would allow the region to seek development opportunities that are currently unattainable. A follow up plan includes development of retirement communities, tourism and low-tech manufacturing. Once the wheels are rolling these programs could work into the equation providing hundreds of new jobs each year.

Currently, there is no time frame for the project so a start date or completion date is miles away.