RED BAY — Not everywhere in Alabama is as congested as Mobile, Birmingham, Montgomery or Huntsville. Up in Franklin County, the home of former longtime State Sen. Roger Bedford (D), there is a place where one of the major highways is wide open.
Imagine a multilane, limited-access highway with manicured medians and not a car for miles. This mythical-sounding creation is Alabama Highway 24, also known as Corridor V.
It’s one of the more bizarre things you might encounter if you ever travel the state from corner to corner.
The next time you’re stuck in traffic trying to flee Mobile for Baldwin County on Interstate 10, or playing a game of traffic-light chance headed anywhere on Airport Boulevard, know that there is this place of legendary extravagance, built by your government, and that solving traffic nightmares is indeed a possibility when they put their minds to it.
Corridor V is one of Alabama’s newer highways. The portion to which I’m referring begins in Decatur, passes through the center of Lawrence and Franklin, and ends a mile or so beyond the state line, in middle-of-nowhere Mississippi.
The road is fantastic for people making the 25-mile commute from Red Bay to Russellville, or the 20-mile commute from Moulton to Decatur. The problem: A comparatively minuscule number of people make that drive, while a swell of commuters to and from Alabama’s downtown metropolises face parking lot-style traffic.
Eventually, the route will be completed to Batesville, Mississippi, and it will be great for people who want to attend an Ole Miss game in Oxford.
Still, the highway is one of those head-scratchers. With all the road and highway needs in the state, how do projects like this receive funding? Was the lobbying arm of Red Bay’s Tiffin Motorhomes so influential it got the government to make this highway to nowhere a priority?
Some of it has to do with the federal government, and Sen. Richard Shelby, who has earned the title of Greatest Statesman EVER in some quarters, because of his uncanny ability to route government pork to Alabama.
Back in the 1960s, Congress passed the Appalachian Regional Development Act, a law with the goal of improving the lives of people in rural Appalachia, from New York State to Mississippi. With it came the Appalachian Development Highway System, a series of highways designated as “corridors.” The system assigned letters to each “corridor.”
Although it is a worthy goal to connect these rural areas to the outside world, as is the case for many of these federal government endeavors they become an avenue for members of Congress to steer pork-barrel funding to their state and districts.
And they have capitalized. That is why Alabama has most of its proposed portion of Corridor V completed; and because of that, Moulton (population 3,343), Russellville (population 9,815) and Red Bay (population 3,119) are connected to the booming big city of Huntsville.
Meanwhile, Mobile (population 192,904), Montgomery (population 200,022), Birmingham (population 212,157) and Huntsville (population 193,079) are given the runaround with 20-year feasibility studies and shoulder shrugs from elected officials when it comes to addressing their road and bridge needs.
Consider this: The state of Alabama by statute is addressing transportation needs designated by members of Congress who served in the 1960s and have all since left office. As a country, we’re fulfilling the highway priorities determined at a time when there was no internet and long before the explosion of suburban life in the South.
The Appalachian Regional Development Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson 53 years ago. For that reason, our government is using federal tax dollars to build four-lane highways to the middle of nowhere instead of building a long-term solution for the centuries-old conundrum of crossing Mobile Bay.
On a good day, you can make the 19-mile journey from downtown Mobile to Fairhope in 45 minutes during rush hour. However, the time it takes to make the trans-Franklin County trip from Russellville to Red Bay is determined by just how fast you’re willing to drive and what speed limits you violate when you do so.
Such is the situation in our modern federal government that we are bound by 50-year-old laws passed by legislators who lacked the foresight to address the needs of 2018.
Obviously, it isn’t quite as simple as saying ‘let’s take money allocated for this seemingly useless Northwest Alabama highway project and use it for a Mobile Bay bridge, the widening of I-65 in Jefferson and Shelby counties or the widening of I-565 in Huntsville.’
The statute dictates how the government must spend that money. But laws can be changed. Why they haven’t is anyone’s guess.
Perhaps it’s the gridlock in Congress. Things like this don’t get changed without someone in the food chain getting to wet their beak. “You want your highway needs addressed? I won’t vote for this legislation unless the feds fund my solar-powered, wind-illuminated bike lane in Palo Alto.”
And that’s the problem — there is little will to change quietly bad laws because it is a really, really difficult task.
It could also be that members of Congress’ Southern delegation are reluctant to change this particular piece of misguided legislation that has allowed us to build dead-end highways to places like Red Bay, Alabama. They like having the ability to steer endless amounts of money back home and pat themselves on the back, or, in the case of Alabama’s elder statesman Shelby, have others in the media do it for him.
But that’s just speculation.
Regardless of the reason, you’re stuck in traffic while your government is building the roads and highways for the upcoming decade of the 1970s.