Put more important needs first

Published 10:22 pm Thursday, May 14, 2009

It couldn’t have been more timely if it had been scripted. Torrential rains in Montgomery last Thursday flooded the Alabama Statehouse. The rain filled basement offices with up to four feet of water and sent the legislative session across the street to makeshift chambers in the historic state Capitol.

Cars floated in the parking lot as workers and visiting school groups evacuated. The flooding comes at a time when the Legislature is mulling a plan to replace its Statehouse with a new one that could cost as much as $170 million. While there’s certainly a need for improvements, let’s hope the flooding doesn’t cause a rush to construct a fancy replacement. The challenging economic climate has created a lot more pressing needs than new quarters for the Legislature and some state agencies. An immediate remedy may be to work with Montgomery city officials to improve stormwater drainage. If basement offices and low-lying parking slots need to relocate for now, so be it. State officials don’t have a good track record when it comes to constructing new state buildings. Consider the Statehouse. It was built in 1961 to house the state highway department and was extensively renovated in the 1980s when the legislative chambers moved from the Capitol.

The makeover left a lot to be desired: ventilation systems that leave big temperature variations; giant columns awkwardly placed in the House chamber. Its elevator doesn’t even go to the top floor. An escalator system put in the Capitol never worked properly, leading to its removal several years ago. The mammoth Gordon Persons Building also proved to be a design disaster. The building, which sprawls over practically an entire block, is often referred to as the Missing Persons Building because its extremely poor layout leads even some knowledgeable users of the building astray. Columns divide the hallways, there are corridors that lead to nowhere, and there is no uniform office numbering system. No one would argue that legislators and employees need a safe place to work. A Statehouse must also adequately accommodate the public during legislative sessions. The need for a new one may be real, but there are countless other needs, far more important ones, that ought to come first.

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—The Huntsville Times