This is a guest opinion column
Mildred Duke, 89, a widow who grew up in Gallion, Alabama, has lived most of her life in the same place, the house she has called home since her marriage in 1951. Several weeks ago she was mowing the grass in his front yard when men in yellow vests arrived in a truck. They crossed his property with a tripod in hand, surveying and driving stakes into the ground and surrounding fields. They even drilled into his neighbor’s pasture.
Duke turned off his lawn mower. “Are you really taking my house?” she asked one of the men.
A guy shrugged. “We are just investigating,” he said.
She knew they were pacing the West Alabama Corridor project, a four-lane corridor from Tuscaloosa to Mobile, which will begin construction this spring and is expected to take years. But no one from ALDOT specifically told him that the highway runs through his living room, although the stakes point to the truth of the matter.
This massive undertaking, funded by the Rebuild Alabama Act, passed the Legislature in 2019. A 10 cents per gallon state gasoline tax increase, the first increase since 1992, which makes the state’s share of gas 28 cents per gallon, is funding the plan. From 2023, the state tax is linked to indexation, which means that the tax can be adjusted to the cost index every two years. Most road projects like this are eligible for federal matching funds, but these will be funded 100% by Alabama taxpayers. With such a high price, will there be money left over for other projects? Long-awaited by some, this 80-mile, $800-million project is the ultimate “bridge to nowhere” for Ms. Duke and others living in the impoverished Black Belt.
All Mrs Duke knows at this point is that it looks like the highway will destroy the place she has called home for the past seventy years, along with the homes, trailers and ponds in nearby catfish, where friends and family live and make a living. Over the past few months there have been a few meetings about the project and last week she received a card in the mail directing her to a website for more information, but she has no internet, and even though she had some, she doesn’t have a computer.
If the state takes her property, she does not know where she will move. “I’ll probably be dead before all this happens and I hope I go to heaven,” she said. She had planned to leave her house to her nephew, but now she doesn’t know what the future holds and fears she won’t be able to buy or build a new house.
Mayor Woody Collins of Demopolis also fears this new plan will be a nightmare. ALDOT cites cost and environmental issues as the reason the current plan bypasses Demopolis by several miles. With the current trajectory, Collins fears people will stop without stopping to eat, buy gas or shop in Demopolis, Jackson, Grove Hill and Thomasville. Woodson has said in previous news articles that he wondered if the real reason for the project was to make the proposed route the fastest possible way for University of Alabama fans to get from Mobile. in Tuscaloosa.
This monumental undertaking has several phases in which not all corridors and bypasses have yet been identified and issues surrounding historic site issues around Moundville have not been resolved. According to a recent article,West Alabama Corridor Project Could Threaten Search for Maliba, the 500-Year-Old Black Belt Town Where Tuskaloosa Fought Desoto,” in The Perry County HeraldLate last year, University of West Alabama professor Dr. Ashley Dumas announced that his team had found evidence of the location of the battle of Mabila, one of the bloodiest ever. delivered between the Native Americans and the Conquistadors. Nearly 500 years ago, Chief Tuskaloosa, the legendary Muskogean leader led a mighty resistance against Spanish conquistador Hernando DeSoto and his men. Dumas is concerned that the expansion of Highway 69 through Marengo and Hale counties, which is part of the proposed plan, could result in the loss of important archaeological sites and important artifacts of Alabama history. It seems that while the state forgoes federal funds, it doesn’t have the same rigorous and historic significance standards to meet before razing sites like the Battle of Mabila.
Is this multi-million dollar project the best use of time, money and focus in an area where, in 2017, the United Nations highlighted the living conditions of people in the Third World? Gallion’s proposed bypass will be 11 miles west of Uniontown, one of the poorest communities in the state, with an average per capita income of $12,295 and 49% of the city living below the poverty line. The state of Alabama plans to spend $800 million on a road for no apparent reason, but it leaves Uniontown residents without reliable, clean drinking water, which means residents often fall ill with E. coli and hookworm from water contaminated with raw sewage.
In Lowndes County, according to a 2011 census committee, 90% of the people who lived there had inadequate or no septic system. Half of the conventional septic tanks in place were failing or were about to break down.
The black belt also struggles with emigration or young labor leaving to find employment elsewhere. Now that the pandemic has opened up more industries to employees working remotely, why not spend that money building rural broadband, because high-speed internet is one of the defining factors businesses use when they choose new locations? According to a 2020 al.com article, less than half of Black Belt’s population has access to high-speed internet, while Perry and Choctaw counties have no access. The construction of this highway creates short-term jobs, but it does not promote the long-term job growth that approaches the development of basic infrastructure as does the implementation of a broad rural brand.
Sustained economic growth is also linked to quality education. Right now, the black belt is failing and falling far behind as it struggles to retain teachers and educate students. Only 11% of K-12 students scored high enough on state assessments to be considered “proficient,” and only 22% of black belt students were considered proficient in science, compared to 36% of non-black belt students, according to a recent al.com article by Ramsey Archibald. The shortage of teachers and persistent poverty are at the root of this problem. Why not pay teachers what they are worth and rebuild schools instead of a highway?
As this project moves forward, how will people like Mrs Duke and their displaced families be compensated when we all know the value of the land, home and community that someone called her house all his life is immeasurable. The issues facing the Alabama black belt are complicated and the solutions multi-faceted. There is no silver bullet, but let’s just give up and ignore the real needs of the residents of the black belt, the poorest area of the state and one of the poorest regions in the country, and do we clear archaeological treasures and historical artifacts, so football fans and beach goers can cut their journeys by half an hour?