Sen. Shelby’s Clout Puts Corridor X on Brink of Existence

Fri January 16, 2004 - Southeast Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) Alabama highway officials acknowledge they’re in an enviable position. Almost every year, the state is able to make progress on its largest and most expensive road project without dipping into its allotment of federal grant money to pay for it.

They concede it’s no coincidence that hundreds of millions of dollars have gone toward the Corridor X interstate project in the northwestern part of the state during Sen. Richard Shelby’s tenure presiding over a Senate panel that dishes out transportation funds.

“This is truly extra money, and that is a blessing,” said Don Vaughn, deputy director of the Alabama Department of Transportation. “Alabama is not unlike any other state in that we have more needs than the funding available to meet those needs. I’m sure they’re envious of the fact Sen. Shelby is extremely interested in transportation.”

Shelby estimates he has been able to steer more than $280 million toward the project to connect Birmingham, AL, and Memphis, TN. He got another $30 million included in a massive appropriations bill the House has already approved and the Senate is expected to pass early next year.

The project, which roughly parallels U.S. 78, provides an interstate through one of the largest segments of Appalachia that doesn’t already have one. When the idea of Corridor X was authorized in 1978, the estimated cost for the 100-mi. (160.9 km) project was $100 million, but new environmental regulations and higher concrete prices now have inflated its price tag 10-fold.

Along with categorized money for such things as maintaining roads and reducing congestion, Alabama highway officials get around $200 million each year from the federal government that they can use as they choose. But there are too many needs to devote much of that chunk to one road.

Another block of federal funds is intended to aid Appalachian highways, but Alabama’s yearly cut is only approximately $50 million, which is shared between Corridor X and Corridor V in the northeastern part of the state.

At that rate, Shelby figured there was no chance for swift completion of a project that he expects will provide an economic boon to a quarter of his state. At Shelby’s request, Congress for years has included sizable earmarks –– sometimes as high as $100 million –– for Corridor X, above and beyond money targeted for Alabama’s other highways.

“I thought it was a desperately needed road and had been started and stopped,” said Shelby. “It was very logical to finish, and we knew it would cost a lot of money. I was in a position to make it happen, and that’s what they’re doing.”

Officials at the Federal Highway Administration declined to comment on whether they think Alabama is getting more than its fair share.

Over the years, Shelby and others in the state’s congressional delegation have made clear that Corridor X is one of their top priorities when it comes to dishing out federal money. A few years ago, Shelby and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL, threatened to block a transportation bill until $80 million was included for the project.

“It takes some muscle to get that done, I’ve got to admit,” Sessions said. “I’m proud Sen. Shelby is in that position and he’s able to get a little extra for us on highways.”

Vaughn said there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel. The total estimated cost to complete Corridor X is approximately $240 million, but highway officials are confident they’ll have that in the next few years.

If all goes according to plan, construction should begin on the last segments of the highway in 2005. It could be finished in 2007.

“We see the end of this project,” Vaughn said.