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Atlanta-Memphis change sought
State rep. wants spur connecting Shoals to Interstate 565; local officials cite difficulties in altering route

By M.J. Ellington (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — A new state lawmaker who wants a highway spur to connect the Shoals to Interstate 565 near Decatur may be about 10 years late to the party.

Local officials say that after years of meetings, public hearings and environmental and cost studies to develop the Memphis-to-Atlanta superhighway, it's difficult to change course.

But an engineer with the Alabama Department of Transportation said it's possible to change the superhighway plan if the officials who pushed for it agree.

New state Rep. Mike Curtis, D-Greenhill, told the Times-Daily he believes it is possible to connect Florence to I-565 with either a brand new highway or upgrades to an existing one. Curtis said he and Rep. Tammy Irons, D-Florence, believe a spur into I-565 near Decatur or Athens would be faster than waiting on completion of the Memphis-to-Atlanta highway.

Curtis said the Shoals area's long wait for a link to an interstate has slowed economic growth there and caused business and industry to locate elsewhere. One of Curtis' concerns is a move by officials in larger states to keep more of their gasoline tax money at home rather than sending it to Washington. That could lessen the amount of federal highway funds coming to Alabama.

"He is right that it is taking a long time. I am 63, and I won't see it completed," said Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce President John Seymour

Seymour is one of the North Alabama officials who began highway planning meetings more than 10 years ago and helped persuade federal officials to put the project in long-range plans.

U.S. Reps. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, and Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, participate in those meetings, as do area lawmakers, city and county officials and leaders from the Shoals area, Seymour said.

"He needs to really talk to his local folks," Seymour said of Curtis' proposal. Environmental concerns and legal questions caused delays in Northwest Alabama's part of the superhighway, Seymour said. "It is a complicated matter," he said. "The environmental study is more than a foot thick."

Existing roadways in North Alabama, including portions of I-565, will be part of the superhighway under current plans, Seymour said.

Plans already exist for portions of the Memphis-to-Atlanta highway east of Morgan County, and planning is under way for portions closer to Decatur and Athens.

Seymour said he doubts the state will build a highway spur before completing the main highway.

Don Arkle, assistant chief engineer for planning at the state transportation department, said it's possible to alter the existing plans to include Curtis's proposal, but members of Congress and local officials, who pushed for a limited-access design, must request such a change.

Arkle said the current design calls for the superhighway to come into Alabama's northwest corner through the Shoals, into Morgan County, skirting the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, and then east between Decatur and Athens.

The design also calls for a new bridge over the Tennessee River and for the highway to connect with I-565 east of the I-65/565 interchange, he said.

Arkle said Curtis's proposal, which includes upgrading an existing road, either U.S. 72 or Alabama 20, or building a new road, might work if officials in North Alabama wanted to change the highway's design. "The freeway design is the most expensive," Arkle said. "If it was the local delegation's desire to scale back, it is possible."

But Arkle said if the state decides to do a spur road, then it faces a new round of studies and meetings. He said it's hard to know how long that would take.

Michael Lowry, communications director for Aderholt, said Curtis has not contacted the congressman about his proposal. Cramer was not available for comment.

Rep. Bill Dukes, D-Decatur, said the connector plans affect Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, as well as Alabama. Discussions dating back more than 20 years include the impact on those states, too.

"We knew in the beginning it would be hard and it would be long," Dukes said. "We all seemed to be on the same page on where it should be." Dukes said he is willing to hear Curtis's proposal, but does not know the answer.

Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur said he believes things are too far along in the original Memphis-to-Atlanta highway to alter plans. "But more power to those guys it they can make it happen," Hammon said.

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