Third public hearing gives residents chance to see proposed routes

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 26, 2006

DEMOPOLIS &8212; Area citizens swarmed to the Civic Center last night to get a third look at proposed routes for the expected I-85 Extension that would link I-20/I-59 near Meridian, Miss., with Montgomery.

The project first began on June 22, 2005, when Gov. Bob Riley ordered the expediting of the I-85 corridor study project by adding $16 million to the budget of the Alabama Department of Transportation.

On Aug. 10, 2005, the U.S. Congress committed $100 million to the project in adopting the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU).

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The following day, ALDOT contracted with the Mobile-based firm of Volkert and Associates to complete a corridor study on the proposed interstate.

Today, that three-year project is more than half-way complete, with current findings presented yesterday at a special public hearing.

So far, Griggs said his firm has received &8220;very strong support for the project.&8221; In Demopolis, the support has been almost universally in favor of the interstate coming near the city, Griggs said.

Mayor Cecil Williamson said she believes having the interstate come near the city would create more economic development for the area.

The project is being divided into three sections: from near Meridian to Demopolis, from Demopolis to Selma, and from Selma to Montgomery.

The mayor said if Gov. Riley is serious about helping the Black Belt grow then the first leg of the project should be built within the Black Belt.

The west section has five possible routes, all of which run approximately four miles south of Demopolis. The greatest concern with these proposed routes is that it could pull retail business from the current growth area along the western corridor of Hwy. 80.

Griggs said his firm is hosting the public meetings to hear more about the concerns of people in the area.

Most of these concerns come from areas made up of a largely rural population who moved to the area for the atmosphere it provides and who do not have a real need for interstate-quality roads, according to Griggs.

He said plotting the proposed paths has meant &8220;walking a fine line of serving those communities but not negatively impacting them, where a matter of a mile or two is the difference.&8221;

The final path will include a 400-foot wide right-of-way. Under the current five proposals for the west section, up to 29 residential relocations could take place.

At last night&8217;s meeting, Volkert had GPS software that would allow residents to provide their address and a computer-generated image would show whether or not any of the proposed routes ran through or near their property.

But residential relocations is not the only concern. Volkert is working with 23 firms and agencies to judge the impact on the environment and areas of potential historic value.

According to data provided at the meeting by Volkert, two of the five routes had potentially high historical or archeological resources, two medium and only one low.

Four of the five routes, according to data provided by Volkert, included potentially high numbers of threatened or endangered species. The fifth proposed route had medium levels.

Griggs said his firm is compiling all of this type data, and it will be presented in more detail at the next public hearing, scheduled tentatively for February, 2007.

Once the site is chosen, Griggs said his firm will &8220;shovel test 140 miles to look for any significant archeological finds,&8221; which would mean the route might have to altered by a mile or two.

Griggs estimated the corridor study would be complete by February, 2008, at which time it will be up to ALDOT and the Federal Highway Authority to decide if the interstate will be built. After that, congressional and state funding must be obtained.

But Williamson knows that funding could be a difficult process. Right now, approximately $142 million has been put toward the study project. Volkert estimates the cost of building the interstate at $1.2 billion in today&8217;s currency. In 18 months, the cost will likely have increased, according Volkert associates.

Two additional public hearings are being held this week. The first is from 5 to 7 p.m. tonight at the St. James Hotel in Selma. The last is from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Montgomery.