Panel pushing West Alabama highway wants to keep going

Published 11:13 am Thursday, February 12, 2009

A commission pushing for a four-lane highway from Muscle Shoals to Mobile wants the Alabama Legislature to keep it around so it can continue being a cheerleader for the project.

The Lieutenant Governor’s Commission on Public-Private Partnership Projects is supposed to go out of existence next week, but the commission agreed Thursday to ask the Legislature to extend it’s term.

Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. got the Legislature to create the commission last year to look at ways to build a limited-access four-lane highway that would run down the western side of the state. Folsom said the commission has become “the first real rallying point” for a proposal he has been pushing since 1993, and he wants to keep it in existence. He expects no problems achieving that.

The commission is looking at the possibility of building the proposed highway with a combination of public and private funds, which would require motorists to pay tolls. But a report the commission will present to the Legislature on Tuesday says more study is needed to determine the best way to do that and whether a federal economic stimulus package might provide some funding.

The state Department of Transportation has looked at proposed routes, but hasn’t determined the best location.

One commission member, former state Transportation Director Mack Roberts, said west Alabama hasn’t grown like the rest of the state because it lacks a major north-south transportation route. He said the commission can keep public attention focused on the proposed project.

Some of the counties in west-central Alabama traditionally have the state’s highest unemployment rates. Wilcox County in that area is currently leading the state at 15.1 percent.

The commission’s chairman, state Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, said Alabama has many highway needs, but none greater than in west Alabama.

Folsom grew up in Cullman, which is on the route of one of the state’s original interstate highways, I-65. Folsom said he was 9 years old when the I-65 stretch between Cullman and Birmingham opened, and it “meant absolutely everything” to the growth of his hometown. He predicted a north-south route through west Alabama would have the same economic impact.

Folsom, a Democrat, is trying to decide whether to run for governor in 2010 or seek another term as lieutenant governor. He said his decision won’t affect his push for the proposed highway.

“Whatever I do, it’s a priority,” he said.