PHOTO: Congestion on U.S. Highway 280 in Birmingham. (Contributed Photo | Office of Jim Zeigler)
Contributed by State Auditor Jim Zeigler
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — I do not need expensive studies and consultants to know that Alabama has immediate infrastructure needs. I experienced a major infrastructure problem Saturday afternoon.
While the inadequacy of Interstate 65 from Birmingham to Montgomery -- and on all of the beach route -- may or may not be our most dangerous problem, it may well be the most immediate. It is a problem NOW.
It took me four hours to drive my family from Hoover to Montgomery. We saw no wrecks, no road construction, and no stalled vehicles. This weekend was no beach holiday. The congestion was simply Saturday summer traffic in Alabama. There is more traffic on I-65 than the highway can accommodate.
The backups and delays on stop-and-go I-65 are beyond an inconvenience and irritation. This problem can hurt businesses that depend on I-65 for customers and deliveries. It can hurt our trucking industry. It can quickly hurt tourism. It can discourage Alabama families from taking trips. And it is a safety problem, with an increasing number of fatal wrecks on I-65. It will get worse if not fixed.
I am now working on plans (plural) to fix I-65. There are options to get this done that are not being talked about by our transportation leaders. Should we six-lane I-65 from Pelham to Clanton? Should we put in a Diamond Lane so that drivers have the option of buying a Diamond Pass? It would allow Pass Holders only to bypass delays in a reserved far left lane (requires three lanes). I have used it before, and I was going 70 when the other lanes were stop and go. It works.
OR should we have a High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane that would be free for all cars with two or more passengers? They could bypass delays.
Do we need to extend and connect existing roads to create an alternate route parallel to I-65 and US 31?
And how are we going to pay for these fixes? I am also studying financing options. I have already found that revenue which is supposed to go for Alabama roads is being diverted to other things. I am not talking about just a small diversion of road funds. I discovered this diversion may be close to $70 million a year. That amount would fund a large pay-as-you-go road program.
President Trump has proposed a trillion dollar infrastructure program. This is our chance to use previously-diverted or wasted Alabama dollars to match federal dollars. This may be our best opportunity to fix Highway 280 in Jefferson and Shelby Counties. To build the I-10 bridge over the Mobile River. To fix “Bloody 98” in West Mobile County. To expand all beach routes. And to take care of dozens of road and bridge projects in Alabama cities and counties.
I have taken it upon myself to locate mismanaged state money to use as our matching share in order to maximize the Trump infrastructure money. I will report my findings to state officials and to you, the taxpaying public.
- Jim Zeigler, State Auditor