'Team effort' leads to $450,000 grant

Jonathan Tullos and Scott Farmer both agree that a “vital regional partnership” led to the announcement by United States Senator Richard Shelby of a $450,000 grant to the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission.

Tullos is the Wiregrass Economic Development Corporation Executive Director. Farmer is the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission Executive Director.

Both men were among those in Coffee, Dale, Geneva and Houston Counties who worked to apply for the Better Utilizing Investment Leverage Development—BUILD—Grant from the United States Department of Transportation that was announced by Shelby Sept. 10.

This year the grant program included funding for research for potential project planning, with half the funds allocated for rural areas, Tullos said. “That planning grant can be used to get the independent analysis answers on the economic impact of the road projects.”

The BUILD grant, awarded to the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, originated from a regional partnership between the WEDC, the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce, the Wiregrass Foundation, Wiregrass Electric Cooperative, Grow Southeast Alabama and the SEARP&DC.

It will be used to fund the technical and economic feasibility study of two road projects in the Wiregrass.

The first proposed project will widen approximately 24 miles of State Route 167 in Alabama from a two-lane undivided roadway to a four-lane divided roadway from the Alabama State Line to U.S. Route 84.

The second project will widen approximately 13 miles of State Route 52, extending a segment from Geneva to Dothan that is currently being widened to State Route 167.

Both of these projects could receive construction funding in the future but that is not the purpose of this grant, Tullos explained. “This year the federal grant included planning grants,” he said. “This announcement is exciting because this is our base of what we will build on.”

In 2008, the SEARP&DC conducted a long range plan and transportation needs for Southeast Alabama.

Two corridors were identified and presented to the Alabama Department of Transportation as high priority projects with less than five years for delivery. The corridors identified were Alabama Highway 167 from the Florida line to Troy and Alabama Highway 52 from Geneva to Dothan.

Alabama Highway 167 serves as a major connector between Troy and Panama City Beach, Fla. It is the primary source for north/south transportation of goods and services and an evacuation route. “It needs to be upgraded to a four-lane divided highway to adequately serve all needs of the region,” Tullos said.

Alabama Highway 52 is a major arterial route connecting Geneva and Houston Counties and other surrounding areas within the Dothan service area.

Tullos said that facts and actual data supporting the needs are imperative when requesting transportation funding at both state and federal levels. “Funding for major transportation construction projects doesn’t just happen, he said. “We have to justify the need for a project and show the economic impact that the road brings.”

To conduct the kind of engineering and corridor planning study that will produce solid, independent data costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, Tullos said. “Our small communities in the Wiregrass don’t have that kind of money laying around.”

Tullos said that a re-look at the 2008 SEARPC study showed that it was still valid for the most recent grant application. “This is how we derived these routes. Independent analysis is what determined the routes,” he said.

Tullos said that research indicates that four-laning Highway 167 could generate some 11,191 jobs with a $124.5 million state and local tax impact over a 20-year period. “We suspected this would be a big deal for the area based on their research and analysis data.”

“We had a lot of other partners and everybody has been working hard at different aspects of the application,” Tullos explained. “Ultimately I think that is what landed us the grant because our federal delegation saw that we were all working together for a common outcome.”

“The regional partnership cannot underscore the importance of support by (Shelby), United States Senator Doug Jones, United States Representative Martha Roby, State Senators Donnie Chesteen and Jimmy Holley, State Representatives Steve Clouse, Rhett Marques and Jeff Sorrells, ALDOT Director John Cooper and several Wiregrass mayors and county commissioners,” Farmer said. “Area elected officials, including Enterprise Mayor Bill Cooper, Dothan Mayor Mark Saliba, Geneva County Commission Chairman Toby Seay and Houston County Commission Chairman Mark Culver, regularly participate in discussions to advocate for projects such as the BUILD grant that benefit the entire Southeast Alabama region.”

“I really appreciate (Shelby) and the other members of our congressional delegation’s support of this very important project,” said Cooper. “Determining the feasibility of widening Highways 167 and 52 will directly affect safety, the condition and capacity of our roadways and our quality of life through better access and connectivity.”

“This announcement demonstrates the importance of several groups all working together in partnership to develop a vision and the commitment to implement that vision quickly,” said Chesteen. “This investment in infrastructure improvements for our connecting highways lays the foundation in providing an opportunity for needed growth for our region.” “The BUILD Grant announcement is a significant accomplishment for the Wiregrass and demonstrates the vital importance of our regional partnerships,” said Farmer. “This opportunity would not occur without the advocacy provided by our leaders collectively prioritizing this project and recognizing its importance to the entirety of the Wiregrass area.

“To me that’s the story in this,” Tullos said. “Individually, this would never have happened but working together we were able to accomplish something that could be pretty powerful.

“We were never going to get SR 52 or 167 four laned by ourselves,” Tullos said. “We’ve got a coordinated plan. Now we have ‘skin in the game’ and it’s exciting.

“Does this mean that we are going to get a four-lane? No,” Tullos said. “This means that we are going to continue to develop the plan of action that tells us what it will cost.

“We’re trying to build a business case that shows the economic impact of what this road means to the state as a whole, not just our region,” Tullos said. “The more that we stick together, the more we are going to accomplish.”

Shelby also on Sept. 10 announced a BUILD grant for $15 million to the city of Tuscaloosa to improve access to the Riverwalk area in West Tuscaloosa by improving the Black Warrior River barge mooring, constructing a bicycle and pedestrian path and completing a pedestrian bridge.

“We’re not the size of Huntsville, we’re not the size of Mobile, but if we are united we are as big or bigger,” Tullos said. “And then we can ask for things that are transformative for our region.”

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