MONTGOMERY, AL — Plans to extend Interstate 85 from Montgomery across the impoverished Black Belt to the Mississippi line have been put on the fast track by state officials.
Gov. Bob Riley has added $16 million in state money to $3 million in federal money to plan a route to extend I-85 from Montgomery to intersect with I-20/59, where it crosses the Mississippi line near Cuba.
Riley is pushing to speed up planning on the I-85 extension because he wants to boost economic development in the Black Belt region, said Alabama Department of Transportation Director Joe McInnes. McInnes said he expects to select a company to plan the route in the next week. He said it will take 18 to 20 months to determine the route. "This is his initiative," McInnes said of Riley's push for the extension. "If we don't start it, we won't finish it."
U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby obtained the $3 million federal grant to study plans for the 140 mile extension in 2002. The interstate extension would go through some of the state's poorest counties, possibly including Hale, Lowndes, Perry, Dallas and Sumter. "Economic development and growth are controlled to a great extent by the transportation infrastructure in our state," Riley said. "Extending I-85 from Montgomery to the Mississippi state line will provide a good transportation artery across the state and improve the transportation infrastructure in Alabama's Black Belt."
U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, whose congressional district includes much of the area affected by the planned interstate, said he wants the route to include Selma in Dallas County and Demopolis in Marengo County, which he said could become centers of economic development.
McInnes said the new interstate will not incorporate parts of U.S. 80, the main thoroughfare through the Black Belt. Work is currently underway to widen U.S. 80. "We lack only 22 miles to have U.S. 80 widened to four lanes from Montgomery to Mississippi," McInnes said.