Roads are vehicles for economic development

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 25, 2006

As the summer vacation season grows closer, many Alabamians will pack up their vehicles and hit the roads throughout our state and nation. It only takes a few potholes or traffic jams to remind us of the need for quality roads. Good roads are better for your car and safer for your family, but more importantly, a good road can transform an area and its economy. Reflecting on our roads and their importance offers a unique opportunity to be reminded that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the federal law that brought America its unparalleled Interstate Highway System.

In June of 1956, President Eisenhower authorized funding that would eventually create what we now know as the interstate system. A few months later in October of1956, construction began on I-65 in Cullman County and officially began the interstate system in Alabama. Now 50 years later, the nearly 1,000 mile web of superhighways has transformed our state by providing growth corridors, drastically reducing driving time, and spurring economic development that created jobs and often provided a boost for our economy.

When you travel along Alabama’s interstates, it is easy to see the impact they have on an area’s economic development. All of Alabama’s emerging industries, from automobiles to aerospace, are located within easy access points to interstates. A major highway running through a community or county is a prescription for growth, bringing jobs and access to the world.

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Luckily, right now our state is making great strides in improving the quality of our roads.

Extensive construction is underway on “Corridor X,” which will soon become Interstate 22. Started in 1979, the 96-mile highway will connect Birmingham with Memphis, and will undoubtedly bring a substantial amount of jobs to the area it runs through. When completed, I-22 will run through Jefferson, Walker, and Marion counties, and it will be within five miles of Fayette and Lamar counties as well. Although funding was limited in its beginning phases, the Department of Transportation has received a dramatic increase in funding the last ten years, and I-22 is expected to be complete in approximately five years.

Interstates are undoubtedly important to an area, and no area needs an interstate more than the Black Belt. In response, this session the Legislature passed a bill sponsored by Rep.Thad McClammy (D-Montgomery) that would extend I-85 all the way from where it ends in Montgomery to the Mississippi line, connecting it to I-20/59. The proposed 140-mile route would go right through the heart of the Black Belt.

While the Black Belt is one of poorest places in our state, an interstate running directly through it would immeasurably improve the infrastructure of the region by sparking economic development, bringing good paying jobs, as well as improving the quality of life.

Unfortunately, traditional interstate construction takes decades, and it is very expensive. Early estimates have the I-85 extension costing around $1.5 billion. The process can be painfully slow at times, yet the overwhelming economic need of the Black Belt demands fast action. Rep. McClammy’s bill provides for the quickest way to build the extension: by making it a toll road. With the promise of future toll revenue, the state would be able to immediately raise large amounts of money for planning, land purchases, and construction. But more importantly, the roadway will be built sooner rather than later.

In addition to being economically viable for entire state, we can ensure that we give an economic boost to the folks who need it the most. Imagine the economic growth for the entire region when emerging industries of the Black Belt are linked to the interstate system. Instead of it being off the beaten path, the region will be at the center of growth for the entire Southeast.

Other important projects include a $250 million rehabilitation of Alabama’s interstate system including resurfacing, maintenance, and widening of all of our interstate highways. For example, the DOT is widening 11 miles of I-65 just south of Montgomery, and is widening a substantial portion of I-20 from Jefferson to St. Clair County in an attempt to ease the commercial truck congestion. Initial planning is underway for an interstate to connect Memphis with Atlanta. The proposed corridor would run through the Tennessee Valley, bringing a chance for substantial job and economic growth with it.

As Alabama continues to grow, so does our interstate system. In fact, last year DOT awarded over $682 million in contracts, and this year promises to be another record-breaking year as well. While we can never ensure that every road in our state is perfect, by continuing to support interstate expansion, we can ensure that our highways continue to provide solid economic development for the next 50 years and beyond.