“Be careful what you ask for….you might just get it.”

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The large type, bold print, front-page headlines from four different papers that I read from last week referenced the coming of I-85 to the Black Belt.

Of course, as you read the smaller print of the articles, you understood that the gargantuan federal highway bill (over two hundred and eighty billion dollars) that was recently passed by the U.S. Congress has, as part of it, millions upon millions of dollars set aside, not for one foot of actual I-85 construction into the Black Belt, but rather, for I-85 “engineering studies.”

But it seems that there is indeed a good possibility that an interstate may be built one day from Montgomery to Mississippi, across the Black Belt.

I have been a resident of the Black Belt for over a quarter of a century.

If you nearly double that length of time, you have how long ALDOT has been working toward the project of four-laning (is laning a word?) Hwy. 80 from Montgomery to Mississippi.

Although the project has been insanely dragged out, there has been slow, gradual progress.

Even as I write, road crews are currently working out at the Rooster Bridge area and have begun work into Sumter County.

And rumor has it, (i.e. conversation with Joe McInnis himself, the director of the Alabama Department of Transportation, as well as with others at ALDOT), that the completion of the four-lane project of

Hwy. 80 will be in the very near future.

(In highway terms that means probably around ten years.)

So, it looks like that after all these years, we will soon have a four-lane highway from Montgomery to Mississippi.

Now, my question for the citizens of the Demopolis area is this:

With the soon completion having Hwy. 80 four-laned from Montgomery to Mississippi (i.e. to I-20/59 at Cuba) should we be overly excited about a proposed interstate from Montgomery to Mississippi if its path goes several miles north or south of us?

I am asking this question primarily from an economics standpoint.

Here are some negatives that I see.

An I-85 extension out of Montgomery to Mississippi will probably divert over seventy-five percent of “non-local” traffic off of Highway 80.

Think about it.

If someone is traveling through Montgomery to mid-Mississippi, to Shreveport, to Dallas, etc. (and visa-versa) they currently travel Highway 80.

If an interstate is available, the vast majority of them will opt for traveling on an interstate versus traveling on a four-lane highway.

Thus, a tremendous amount of traffic that currently travels through the Demopolis area would no longer do so.

The result of this, of course, is the loss of revenue that our merchants currently are capturing from this market.

Less revenue to merchants means less revenue for city tax coffers.

So, if the route of I-85 is several miles north or south of Demopolis, then our ability to recapture much of this market will be greatly diminished.

Regionally speaking, however, an interstate would have several obvious positives.

Those communities where the interstate is the closest will most likely benefit the most.

And with a new interstate closer to Demopolis than what we have now (i.e.thirty-five miles away), there would be some definite benefits for existing industries in Demopolis.

And other industries would give us a look, whereas without a nearby interstate access, they currently don’t.

The ideal, of course, would be for the Chamber Board, the city’s Industrial Development Board, and all other interested parties to partner with city officials and start working hard now to see if we can influence the route of I-85.

Economically speaking, the closer that I-85 is to Demopolis, the better chances we have for seeing its benefits.