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Residents react to I-85 plan

DEMOPOLIS-Landowners, local leaders and concerned citizens all gathered at the Demopolis Civic Center Thursday with one question on their mind. “What will the extension of I-85 mean to me?” The answer to their question will depend on the route the extension takes.

Demopolis City Councilman Thomas Moore said it will still be a while before a final route is in place.

“I think it is wide open right now,” Moore said. “They have narrowed it down to some ideal routes, but it is still in the early stages. I think input is good at this time.”

The price tag for the extension is estimated at $1.5 billion, or about $10 million per mile. Congress has already allocated $100 million in seed money.

Through these investments, Assistant Vice President of Volkert&Associates Paul Griggs said they would get a gateway that is long overdue.

“The main thing is that the purpose of the project is to put a connection for a missing section of interstate that has been missing for years,” Griggs said. “That is the whole purpose for the project. This can serve as that connection and save people time on their trips and allow for economic development based on transportation related to industrial and business concerns.”

Presently, Griggs said, they were preparing for environmental tests. He said they should be completed in just over two years.

“We’ll be doing our project in 30 months, which is almost unheard of for a project of this size,” Griggs said. “In doing so we will be putting this on the fast track to complete it and have a series of public involvement meetings five months apart.

Many people showed concerns that the extension could have a negative impact on their property. Moore said it was still too early to see how the project will impact landowners.

“I don’t think anyone should be alarmed until we get down to the specifics,” Moore said. “This is a big ticket item and it is going to take a long time to see where things will go.”

Moore said he was eager to get the project rolling, and looked forward to the positive impact it would have.

“I am looking forward to it,” Moore said. “I think this is something we have needed and there could be a lot of jobs to come out of this. We really need the infrastructure.”

Thursday’s public hearing was one of many phases in making this decision. William Adams, Location Engineer for Volkert&Associates, said the route depends on several aspects.

“The routes depend on several different things,” Adams said. “There’s production cost, public input, environmental impacts and traffic service.”

The plan, Adams said, was to have an approved document by spring of 2008. Public hearings, Adams said, were their way of using public input to make this possible. He said this was a very important part of getting the project off the ground.

“People gave us their opinions on where they felt it should go and that is why we are here,” Adams said. “We want to hear what the public thinks.”

Dallas, Hale, Marengo, Perry and Sumter counties all stand to benefit tremendously from the extension in regards to economic development, he added.

There were no guarantees of new industry, Adams said, but it was a great selling point.

“You can’t say what it is going to do, but it certainly can’t hurt,” Adams said. “Normally when you are trying to pursue economic prospects the first thing they will ask you is how close you are to the interstate. This allows all of [west Alabama] to be close to an interstate.”

Alabama Sen. Bobby Singleton, who serves as Chairman of Industrial Recruitment, said if Kia were to locate near the Black Belt, the extension would create an ideal situation.

“If you look at the route they have planned now, it will actually connect Hyundai and Kia together,” Singleton said. “If Kia were to land in Meridian, it would be a big breakthrough for West Alabama.”

The project will be an enormous milestone, Singleton said.

“I think this is going to be one of the biggest things in [west Alabama] people will ever see,” Singleton said. “I am very hopeful for this project, but I know it is a long term project. We have been patient for all these years and we will open our access for industrial development and a new quality of life.”

Naturally, an interstate extension will not draw industry without an educated workforce. Singleton said he felt the extension would also help in this area.

“This will lead to better schools in this area,” Singleton said. “It will also bring about housing and will help us solve a lot of the problems that plague the Black Belt.”

In the meantime, more meetings are planned. The next meeting, which is scheduled for April, will discuss Alternate Alignment Development. Each meeting that follows will build on itself taking into account public involvement and field reviews from engineering and environmental studies.

Another public hearing 15 months. At this meeting, Griggs said they will discuss all feasible alternates for the project. Data will be presented on the number of people affected, the cost and number of bridges, how much traffic they expect and locations for interchanges.

For now, Griggs said the focus was on public input.

“We’re going the extra mile to coordinate with the public on an ongoing basis,” Griggs said. “Everybody here will know that five months from now we will be back. This is not going to drop into a black hole and take forever. We look forward to coordinating with all the members of the community, the regional planning commissioners and the councils.”