Bill could extend I-85

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 28, 2005

CAMDEN – The Alabama Black Belt Commission Transit and Transportation Committee gathered at the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission in Camden Thursday morning to discuss the current status of the state’s pending transportation projects.

Committee Chairman Pierce Boyd facilitated the meeting and members were pleased to have state Transportation Director Joe McInnes on hand to discuss the recent passing of the U.S. Transportation Appropriations Bill.

“We have a new bill. That’s the good news,” McInnes said. “The bad news is that it has not been authorized and that means we are on a continuing resolution, but we do expect the authorization some time soon.”

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Under the new bill, McInnes said 85 percent of funds will be appropriated to the state for transportation improvement. For example, if the state is given $1 million they are only allowed spend $850,000.

Last year, 92 percent of monies were appropriated to the state.

McInnes went on tell the committee that the new bill will bring unique safety features to the state’s transportation system as well as needed programs.

One of the earmarks of the new bill will organize a study for the extension of Interstate 85 that runs from Montgomery to Meridian, Miss. The total cost of the project is estimated at $1.5 billion and $100 million has been put down for the study.

McInnes said the state will retain an engineering team that will determine the best route for an extension. The team will consider environmental impediments, archeological impediments, churches, cemeteries, existing roads, rivers and streams before any type construction takes place.

Work has begun on Interstate 85 East in Montgomery towards Union Springs.

McInnes said the Interstate 85 extension will not impact the first phase of work that has begun on making U.S. Highway 80, which runs through Montgomery, Selma and Demopolis, a four-lane road and connect with Interstate 59.

Following the completion of U.S. Highway 80, the state plans to build a bypass on U.S. Highway 43 and connect it with U.S. Highway 80.

U.S. Highway 43 runs through Mobile and Tuscaloosa.

McInnes said the completion of these highways could do wonders for the Black Belt region.

“These two routes are crucial to getting employment to people in this area of Alabama,” McInnes said.

Following discussions on the appropriation bill, the committee began to talk about the state’s struggle with public transportation in rural areas.

Joe Nix, transit program compliance manager for the Alabama Department of Transportation, said public transit has received a 40 percent fund increase. However, the increase is not enough to support two new programs.

The New Freedom Initiative provides transportation to the elderly and persons with disabilities and the Job Access Program provides transportation for area citizens to their jobs at manufacturing plants throughout the Black Belt.

Nix said the New Freedom Initiative recently received $2 million in funds from the federal government, but they have to match these funds by 20 percent. The state does not fund public transportation services creating an “existing, but fragmented public transportation system.”

The committee says these programs are crucial to the Black Belt region and public transit organizations are forced to think creatively to meet the 20 percent match.

“Rural transportation is something that can’t be ignored because we can’t go out of business,” said John Clyde Riggs, executive director of the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission. “If it wasn’t for dollars and cents, we wouldn’t run public transportation. But it’s not about dollars and cents, it’s about people and their lives.”

In order to pay their bills, the committee will create brochures and market them to chambers of commerce, CPAs and manufactures. The committee also plans to link public transit operations with United We Ride, a program that coordinates human service transportation.