Lawmakers plan Beltline blitz
Local legislators vow to battle delay in widening schedule; Orr to meet with Riley next week
By M.J. Ellington
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MONTGOMERY — Local lawmakers say they will use a Riley administration policy of finishing partially completed road projects to persuade the governor to finish widening Beltline Road before 2013.
"The governor has been very clear about finishing the job on road projects," said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. "We can't settle for Phase I and Phase II and not have Phase III."
"We are anticipating growth, and we need good roads to handle that growth," said Rep. Bill Dukes, D-Decatur.
Dukes said when the local delegation met with Gov. Bob Riley and transportation officials, they received assurances the Beltline project would be finished.
Then the state released its five-year plan for highway projects. Completion of the Beltline project was not on it.
Neither the two lawmakers nor Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, can explain how this happened.
Now, the final phase of the switch from four to six lanes between Danville Road Southwest and U.S. 31 will not begin until more than two years after Riley leaves office. Unless plans change, in about 2010, six lanes of traffic from Alabama 20 to Danville Road will merge into four lanes along the busiest spot on the Beltline.
If the Beltline cannot be completed sooner, a future governor may not have the same priorities as Riley and could delay the project even more, the legislators said.
Road projects have been political tools in Alabama for decades.
In the past, governors dangled the promise of road improvements before legislators in exchange for votes on pet projects. When lawmakers did not vote the right way, road projects back home often disappeared. Projects frequently move in and out of five-year plans.
Riley vowed to set priorities for road projects that stressed need, not political clout, when he came into office. But Transportation Director Joe McInnes said more fuel-efficient cars and rising road construction costs result in greater time lags on road projects.
Orr has meetings scheduled next week with Riley and McInnes to talk about the Beltline project. He said he will ask them to reconsider the project's timing.
He also planned to discuss the issue when he had lunch with U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, in Decatur on Wednesday.
Orr said local officials need to know how a critical part of the Beltline project fell out of the five-year plan for transportation improvements.
"It seems to me like a way to put it off again, something we've heard before," said Dukes.
Hammon also recalled the governor's emphasis on completing road projects previously left unfinished. He expects to bring that up when he discusses the Beltline with Riley and McInnes next week.
"We constantly hear that transportation revenue is down and costs up and we understand that," Hammon said.
But having half of the Beltline finished "makes the community look unprofessional and sends the wrong message to people considering locating here," Hammon said.
He also is concerned increasing traffic congestion could slow growth.
Work to widen Beltline Road from Gordon Terry Parkway to Danville Road Southwest is well under way. It is expected to be completed in the middle of next year at about $6 million.
The new Crossings development and Colonial Mall would be impacted by any slowdown.
In the five-year state transportation plan released Monday, the state includes a $3 million widening project on a sparsely developed portion of the Beltline. That portion runs from Gordon Terry Parkway to Alabama 20.
State transportation officials said the state has enough in federal Appalachian Development Corridor funds to pay for the $3 million Gordon Terry-Alabama 20 project. It does not have enough money for a larger one.
An $11 million widening project along the commercially busier portion between Danville Road and U.S. 31 had been scheduled as the next phase for widening.
Alabama Department of Transportation District 1 Engineer Johnny L. Harris said improvements on that section are now set for fiscal year 2013.
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