New I-85 route could be better

Published 10:21 pm Thursday, August 26, 2010

Estimates show the proposed extension of Interstate 85 west from Montgomery to the Alabama-Mississippi state line would have a profound effect on the areas that it crosses, but the impact could be much greater.

On a map, the difference appears to be only a few inches, but those few inches could mean millions of dollars to Black Belt cities like Selma, Uniontown, Demopolis and Livingston.

The preferred route of a proposed Interstate 85 extension leads would-be travelers south of Selma from Montgomery before turning north of Uniontown, dropping back south of Demopolis and traveling west, ending just north of Cuba at Interstate 20/59.

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Engineers set their preferred route after diagnosing a “path of least resistance,” so to speak, as their current preference dodges wetlands along with other environmental and construction considerations.

For example, the drafted route bypasses Selma’s Historic District. What kind of impact would funneling thousands of travelers daily through Selma’s Historic District have?

It would be tremendous. Selma and its history, primarily its civil rights legacy, have already made the city a tourism destination of sorts. However, couple the drawing power of the Historic District with the development of a new major highway and Dallas County could experience a tremendous rebirth.

Follow the highway north of Uniontown, a town that has steadily shrunk in population and is now best known as a dumping ground for coal ash leachate and travel it west just south of Demopolis.

Demopolis’ annual Christmas on the River is a large annual draw, as are the budding baseball tournaments at the Sports-Plex, the growing Hay Dayz festival, and a few others.

With Marengo County’s rich hunting and fishing offerings, closer and better access to a major highway could be the match to ignite an economic wildfire.

Alabama’s Black Belt has long been overlooked in the process of economic development. The proposed I-85 extension, if it comes to fruition, would likely bring with it a nearly instant tidal wave of positivity.

However, given that it bypasses some of the area’s largest cities, you have to wonder what might have been if the dotted red line on Volkert’s map came just a few inches closer to the Black Belt’s larger towns. In actuality the extension of I85 was largely formulated as a plan to improve economic development in the Black Belt, to create a way to draw industry, retail and people to this most impoverished part of the state. The plan as it exists now, with its “preferred route,” does little to accomplish the task the project was created for in the beginning.

We suggest Volkert, the Alabama State Department of Transportation, our state government and our US Congressional delegation take another look at their map and determine what is preferred by the people and businesses in this part of the state rather than what they prefer.