February 13, 2009

State of Alabama
Press Release: Lt. Governor Folsom (2007-11)

Shoals-Mobile Road Steps Closer to Reality

 

By Dana Beyerle

Florence Times-Daily
Montgomery Bureau

February 13, 2009

A commission that is promoting a four-lane highway to help economic development in west Alabama needs more time to nurture the project, Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom said Thursday.

Members of the Lieutenant Governor's Commission on Public-Private Partnership Projects said a limited-access, public-private toll road along the west side of Alabama is feasible.

The proposed road would link Muscle Shoals with Mobile.

Folsom released a preliminary study in October that showed the proposed 320-mile, north-south freeway would cost $5.3 billion.

The commission met Thursday to release its report, which includes a recommendation that the Legislature approve an extension to allow the commission to continue for another year. The non-paying commission was to go out of existence next week.

Folsom said the commission has become "the first real rallying point" for the proposal, which he has been advocating since 1993.

He said an extra year will give members time to review the federal economic stimulus package and to promote the limited-access highway.

"It certainly is a feasible project when compared with other public-private projects," Folsom said. "The commission report will keep the focus on the public-private partnership in the state."

The Legislature established the commission in 2008 and meetings have been held in Hamilton, Demopolis and Mobile to gather facts and input from residents about how the road could help a job-starved area of the state.

Alabama's December unemployment rate was 6.7 percent. The December jobless rate along the road's proposed route included 10.9 percent in Marion County, 5.3 percent in Tuscaloosa County and 9.8 percent in Clarke County.

"Jobs are needed in west Alabama," said commission Chairman Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville. His home county of Franklin had a December unemployment rate of 9.3 percent.

"It would benefit northwest Alabama and also Alabama as a whole," said commission member Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia. "Industry wants to come, but we need an infrastructure."

State transportation officials have not determined a route for the proposed highway. Some legislators have said Folsom's interest in roads could be linked to a desire to run for governor again. A former governor, Folsom said in 2008 he would announce a decision early this year whether to seek re-election as lieutenant governor or pursue the governor's race. He said that regardless of his decision, he will push the western Alabama highway.

Folsom's two-term governor father, "Big" Jim Folsom, created the Farm to Market road program in the 1950s, which connected rural areas and markets.

Folsom said he was a 9-year-old boy living in Cullman County when I-65 opened between Cullman and Birmingham. He said it "meant absolutely everything" to his home area and he thinks the same thing could happen for west Alabama.

State transportation officials have been monitoring commission meetings.

"In Alabama, we're at a point (where) we need to consider all the options for building new infrastructure, and a west Alabama freeway would open up a large part of Alabama for economic development and provide more opportunities for enhancing the quality of life for people along that route," said transportation department spokesman Tony Harris said.

The transportation department has been working to upgrade U.S. 43 by widening the road in places and studying the corridor, which could lay the framework for a west Alabama freeway, Harris said.

Although it has nothing to do with the freeway-type road being considered, among the areas of U.S. 43 that are being considered for expansion is in Lauderdale County. The proposed project would widen U.S. 43 from Killen to the Alabama-Tennessee state line.

Dana Beyerle can be reached at (334) 264-6605.



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