Interstate 85 Extension Hinges on Next Highway Bill

Fri January 23, 2009 - Southeast Edition
CEG




YORK, Ala. (AP) Talk of extending Interstate 85 from Montgomery to Mississippi could end in the planning stages unless Alabama’s congressional delegation succeeds in getting funding in the next federal highway bill.

Republican Sen. Richard Shelby kick-started planning for an interstate highway when he secured $100 million in funding in the long-range highway bill in 2005. No route has been determined yet for connecting with Interstate 20/59.

The 2005 highway bill expires in September.

U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, a Democrat who represents much of west-central Alabama, said that for the project to go forward, the Alabama congressional delegation needs to agree to seek a substantial amount of money in the next federal highway bill.

“Our whole state will be affected economically if we can make it easier to get jobs and commerce into west Alabama,’’ he told the Mobile Press-Register for a Jan. 2 story.

Some see the proposed interstate opening up trucking routes that would help industries locate in some of the poorest counties in the state.

“I’d love to see it come to pass,’’ said Doris Haney of York. “I’d love to see some industry come, too.’’

Haney is a widow who once ran the town’s now-defunct Ford dealership with her late husband.

Livingston businessman Bobby Williams said I-20/59 from Birmingham to Meridian, Miss., already runs through part of west Alabama and it has done little except attract a few motels and convenience stores around the exits. He also sees no need to spend an estimated $2 billion to construct a new interstate when the four-laning of U.S. 80 from Montgomery to near the Mississippi line will be completed in a few years.

“In my opinion, I-85 is a boondoggle,’’ he told the Press-Register.

Extending I-85 from Montgomery to Mississippi has been discussed in Alabama for many years, but it was not in the five-year construction plan of the state Department of Transportation when Shelby got $100 million inserted in the federal highway bill in 2005.

Shelby said the interstate highway would be “a critical investment into the Black Belt infrastructure’’ that would spur economic opportunities.

His spokeswoman, Laura Henderson, said Shelby is disappointed the state has not made the project more of a priority.

Gov. Bob Riley has made economic improvement in west Alabama a priority, but he did not seek the $100 million, communications director Jeff Emerson said.

An environmental project on the proposed 140-mile highway was scheduled for completion last summer, but it has been pushed back well into 2009 due to wrangling between federal highway officials and the consultant, Volkert & Associates of Mobile, according to state records.

Now, the future of the project hinges on the next long-range highway bill that Congress will have to develop.

“Either we are in or we’re out,’’ Davis said.