Article about teen driving deaths

This article came from the February 15, 2002 edition of the Birmingham Business Journal

Corridor X could become an interstate by October

By Gilbert Nicholson, Staff

Corridor X, the upgrade of U.S. Highway 78 under construction between Birmingham and Memphis, could become an interstate this fall through 40 miles of Alabama and across Mississippi if government and economic development officials from northeast Mississippi are successful lobbying Congress.

The designation would boost efforts to attract industry in northwest Alabama long before completion of the highway and set the stage for gradually expanding the interstate designation toward Birmingham as segments of the highway are finished.

Alabama economic development and governmental officials learned of the situation this week and were unprepared to commit to assisting the congressional lobbying effort. But they express interest in learning more from their Mississippi colleagues, who plan a trip to Washington March 5-6.

"Sen. Shelby looks forward to sitting down with them and hearing the specifics of their proposal," says Andrea Andrews, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.

State leaders agree that upgrading Corridor X to interstate status would greatly enhance the marketability of property adjacent to industrial prospects.

The Mississippi effort, seeking interstate designation from Winfield in northwest Alabama to the Mississippi-Tenneseee state line, is led by David Rumbarger, former director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Development during former Gov. Guy Hunt's administration. Rumbarger now heads the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo, Miss.

Lost project spurs action

Rumbarger says the lack of an interstate in northeast Mississippi caused a car manufacturer to drop it as a candidate.

Corridor X, which passes through the area, cannot be designated an interstate until it connects with interstates in Memphis and Birmingham, Rumbarger says, citing Federal Highway Administration regulations.

But two weeks ago, he discovered an obscure regulation, called an "exceptional segment" provision, permitting limited- access highways not connected to interstates to circumvent federal regulations and receive an interstate designation. Rumbarger says the provision was used to designate the Huntsville spur of I-565, which feeds into a non-interstate highway before connecting to I-65 near Decatur.

He and Mississippi officials will ask Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi congressmen to insert the exceptional segment provision for a 260-mile stretch of Corridor X in next year's transportation bill, effective Oct. 1.

Andrews, Shelby's spokeswoman, says such legislation likely would come from a transportation authorizing committee, not Senate transportation appropriations, of which Shelby is the ranking Republican.

That would put the issue in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, of which U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills, is a member. Attempts to reach Bachus' spokesman, Jeff Emerson, were unsuccessful.

"Congressman (Roger) Wicker (R-Miss.) says if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, why not call it an interstate," Rumbarger says. "It's built to the same standards. If you rode on it and didn't look at the highway signs, you'd think you were on an interstate."

Rumbarger acknowledges that the effort won't be easy, mainly because the Federal Highway Administration frowns on using such a rule to bypass the normal process, which is lengthy and complex.

"There's no question it will take a lot of lobbying and cajoling," Rumbarger says. "The secretary of transportation (Norman Mineta) is probably not going to like this. But they don't live here, and we need it. It's keeping us out of the hunt of some major auto projects in the South."

Indeed, Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., along with some Magnolia State congressmen, recently have been in South Korea trying to bag a $1 billion Hyundai car plant, according to a Jackson, Miss., newspaper.

No time to waste

As the clock ticks, accelerating the interstate designation process is essential, Rumbarger says, with Corridor X "literally taking at least seven years to be connected on either end," which is a requirement of normal federal highway procedures.

Alabama has yet to take bids on a $141 million interchange at I-65 in Birmingham.

"Tennessee is still arguing about where to connect Corridor X in Memphis. I don't want to wait for their argument," Rumbarger says.

To be sure, he gets no argument from Alabama economic development officials on the clout and prestige an interstate carries with industrial prospects.

"There are 13 automotive manufacturers in the Southeast, and all are either on or within a few miles of an interstate," says Steve Sewell, spokesman for the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, a privately funded industrial recruiting organization.

Interstate access `critical'

But it's not just carmakers that covet interstates.

"There's no way around it. Interstate access is critical for manufacturers in all sectors," Sewell says. "Many communities with quite a lot to offer in terms of good infrastructure and other assets are often eliminated from consideration on the front end. We see it a good deal in the projects we work with."

Sewell says the EDPA, like Shelby, wants to hear more about the Mississippi effort.

The proposal also was news to the Alabama Development Office, the state's industrial recruiting arm, says Robert Sutton, ADO's acting manager of research and communication. Asked if the ADO will support the Mississippi lobbying effort, Sutton says the issue is a policy matter for Gov. Don Siegelman.

Efforts to immediately reach Siegelman were unsuccessful. But his spokeswoman, Carrie Kurlander, says she raised the issue with Paul Bowlin, director of the Alabama Department of Transportation.

"Perhaps" the DOT would support the effort, Kurlander says. "It's not anything they've talked about, but they certainly would look into it."

Barry Copeland, vice president of government affairs at the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce, says the organization has considered an interstate designation for Corridor X for some time.

"Like everyone else, we're not aware too much of what Mississippi is doing, but why not? Let's go ahead and give it a name," Copeland says. "If it's helpful to Mississippi in economic development, wouldn't it be helpful in Alabama?"

Copeland says if the exceptional segment provision is enacted for the Winfield- to-Mississippi stretch of Corridor X, it stands to reason that the interstate designation would be expanded as the highway is completed toward Birmingham.

"To the extent we can name part of it sooner, it benefits Alabama."


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