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I-10 connector on election ballot

The construction of a toll road that would ultimately connect Montgomery to Interstate 10 via Pike County, could become a reality, and much sooner than many anticipate according to one of the plans leading proponents.

“If those numbers come back the way I think they will, I think we can break ground on it next year,” said Steve Shaw the president of the non-profit group Focus 2000, which is spearheading the proposal.

The numbers Shaw referred to are the results he expects to see from feasibility studies that could be conducted in the region, that would focus on the projected impact of such a road.

As part of a bill that will appear on the November ballot that would pump $1 billion into various road and bridge projects across the state, $1 million would be set aside to fund that required research.

Ten years ago, similar studies were conducted in southeast Alabama that suggested an I-10 connector might not have a significant positive impact.

“Those studies, projected at the time what I call ‘marginal’,” Shaw said.

“It was doable, but marginal.”

But Shaw said things are different now.

“There have been a lot of positive changes,” he said.

One noticeable change has been growth.

Shaw estimated the population of Dothan alone has increased from 45,000 to 60,000 over the last 10 years, and he said Montgomery and northwest Florida have experienced rapid expansion as well.

He further mentioned the potential for air commerce through the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City Beach, and the addition of auto manufacturers such as Kia and Hyundai.

Shaw said those factors all contribute to increased shipping to Panama City, Fla., through the Panama Canal, resulting in more 18-wheeler traffic through the region.

Shaw explained all those dynamics tend to influence and affect each other and produce outcomes that justify the need for, and the benefits of, a road that would connect Alabama’s capital city to the gulf and the beaches, through southeast Alabama and Pike County.

And Shaw says the feasibility studies will help to “prove that up.”

If voters OK the road and bridge bill this November, the research would begin in early 2011.

“Basically they come in and look at current traffic and population growth patterns,” Shaw said.

Industry and business leaders in the region would also be consulted. Shaw said Troy University would be approached for input.

Researchers may find some opposition in Pike County though, as there has been some debate over what effect the road would have locally.

Whatever that may be, Mayor Jimmy Lunsford said the project is worth looking into.

“That’s a smart move to put some numbers to it and see what are the positive and negative impacts and make an educated decision,” Lunsford said.

Pike County Economic Development Corporation President Marsha Gaylard said looking at the big picture, a nearby interstate could provide several advantages.

“What this toll road will do for Pike County and all of southeast Alabama is really open us up for economic development,” Gaylard said.

“If you think about it, if you look at other areas where interstates have gone in, those communities have grown tremendously.”

But in a Feb. 2009 article in The Messenger, some businesses on U.S. 231 in Troy voiced concern over how a bypass could cut them off from valuable travelers passing through the community.

However, Focus 2000 has promised communities like Troy won’t be hung out to dry.

Shaw said the toll road would run close to city.

“It wont be a big bypass, it will be in close proximity to 231,” he said.

Gaylard was also confident, that given the right conditions, the road wouldn’t take away from local commerce, saying that from what she has heard so far, the road would run along U.S. 231.

“I think we would still get a lot of that business with appropriately placed exits,” she said. “We certainly don’t want to hurt any of our businesses, of course we will do everything we can to protect our merchants on 231.”

Shaw said state and federal governments could not finance the construction of an interstate quality connector between southern Alabama and northern Florida, and it’s Focus 2000’s objective to construct them on a privatized basis.

Shaw said he is in the construction materials business but the project is being “driven through the chamber of commerce in Dothan.”

“My efforts are strictly working for the community,” he said.

“This is a project that can be the greatest economic impact on southeast Alabama that we could have. It’s not a road, it’s an economic corridor.”