State Rep. Easterbrook: No significant highway improvements from ALDOT in rural SW Alabama since 1983 — Calls for U.S. Hwy 45 widening
If you ever make a trip to Millry, Silas, Coffeeville, Grove Hill, or any of the other small towns that dot the map in rural southwestern Alabama, you’ll discover places that have gone largely unchanged for the past several decades.
While some may think that is a good thing, it is, in part, a product of being isolated from the rest of Alabama. That has come at the cost of a decline in various quality of life factors, including health care and education.
Those areas to the north of Mobile include Choctaw, Washington and Clarke Counties, which are cut off from the rest of the state except for three U.S. Highways, only one of which has seen a significant improvement in the last 50 years. U.S. Highways 43, 45 and 84 serve as the main thoroughfares for that region of the state and have all existed in some form or another since the 1930s.
However, State Rep. Brett Easterbrook (R-Fruitdale) contends if rural economic development is a priority for Alabama’s policymakers, improvements must be made. During an appearance on Alabama Public Television’s “Capitol Journal,” Easterbrook made that case and noted the last significant highway improvement for this region came in the 1980s under then-House Speaker Joe McCorquodale (D-Jackson) with the widening of U.S. Highway 43 from Mobile County to Thomasville in northern Clarke County.
“My district, as you said, covers Choctaw, Clarke and Washington County,” Easterbrook said. “The only real state improvement — the last real state improvement in that district was when Joe McCorquodale was Speaker of the House in 1983. They four-laned Highway 43 — four-laned to Thomasville. It stopped there. So you really only have access headed south.”
Easterbrook explained the struggles of recruiting industry to his House district, which includes all of Washington County, most of Choctaw and Clarke Counties, and a portion of Marengo County, all adjacent to the Alabama-Mississippi state line.
“Industry follows infrastructure,” he added. “They like transportation. It’s a huge part of operating expenses. It’s killing rural Alabama — specifically Southwest Alabama. If you look at the map, there is no four-lane access from the Washington County — from I-65 in Mobile, all the way to I-20.”
According to Easterbrook, U.S. Highway 45 would be an ideal improvement for his district. U.S Highway 45 is four-laned from the Alabama-Mississippi state line north to Meridian, Miss., where it connects to Interstates 20 and 59, and then continues north as a major four-lane north-south thoroughfare in Mississippi.
“Highway 45 is one of those I’m highly interested in,” he said. “It’s the deadliest highway in the state. It’s four-laned from Chicago, Illinois all the way to the Washington County line. In 1992, when they passed the gas bill then, it was written into the law that Highway 45 would be four-laned. The next session, they opened it up and took it out. Highway 45, we had five deaths in December alone. Most of the accidents on Highway 45 were head-on collisions. It is a deadly highway … I think it is because of the highway conditions. If you bottleneck everything down from the four-lane coming all the way in, then the highway is hills and hollows and bad curves everywhere.”
Easterbrook lamented the lack of encouragement he has received from the Ivey administration, noting that he had met with both Alabama Department of Transportation director John Cooper and Gov. Kay Ivey personally, but was informed that despite the public safety elements, those projects did not meet the criteria to be a priority.
“I have met with both,” he explained. “I have not seen the encouragement yet. I met with Mr. Cooper, they talk about a formula they use to choose which road comes first, and obviously, they rank congestion number one. Safety is not a high priority nor rural economic development. If it was, you’d see the money coming out to go to those sites. We don’t see it.”
Choctaw County is one of 12 counties in Alabama without four-lane highway access to the Interstate highway system. Clarke and the far eastern portion of Washington are served by U.S. Highway 43. Easterbrook noted that beyond U.S. Highway 43, West Alabama was grossly underserved.
“Just get a state map and look at it — there is not any four-lane access all the way from I-65 to I-20 in Tuscaloosa,” Easterbrook said. “It’s hard for me to imagine how one-fourth of the state does not have four-lane access. To me, it has to come down to votes. In that area, the population is not that high. So, it gets overlooked. And if we are really serious about rural economic development, then we have to have the four-lane access.”