Last week, Senator Lowell Barron and others introduced Alabama’s version of a “stimulus” package. Actually, SB279 is a repackaged version of a bill Barron introduced last year, but now has been slapped with the title “stimulus,” in an effort to “keep up with the times.”
Essentially, the plan is to remove a total of $100 million from the Alabama Trust Fund for new road and bridge construction over the next 10 years. About 25 percent will go toward maintenance, but the bulk will go toward new roads.
Barron and others see road construction as the best way to stimulate Alabama’s economy. The argument has been made that there are areas of this state that lack roads. While there may be some connectivity and and maintenance needs, a Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) report in 2004 does not indicate the need for new roads, compared to Southeastern states and the rest of the country.
According to the report, Alabama has the third most lane-miles per 1,000 residents in the Southeast, but second highest in vehicle miles driven per capita. Other states with more roads per 1,000 residents include Arkansas and Mississippi. While states with the fewest lane-miles and highest traffic include Florida and North Carolina, Alabama falls far behind both states in the number of vehicles traveled per lane-mile, and Alabama has the lowest urban road congestion rates in the Southeast.
Economic development professionals will agree Alabama is not aspiring to match Arkansas’ or Mississippi’s economic levels, but assuredly North Carolina and Florida would be on our “want-to-be-like” list in the Southeast. So this begs the question – do more roads necessarily mean more economic development for the state? It seems, through this report, that maximizing the use of existing, or less, roadways per capita is the way to realize greater economic prosperity, not necessarily building anew. In fact, multiple studies have shown that improving and reinvesting in existing road infrastructure provides a much larger rate of return than constructing new roadways.
Back to Barron’s bill. At Monday’s YMBC Civic Forum’s luncheon, Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority Chairman Chris Lewis said last year he had a similar idea as Barron’s to find funding for transit. However, he was told that such a plan wouldn’t work, even at the meager levels at which he was looking (compared to Barron’s bill). He said he was surprised to hear Barron essentially use the same idea, but make it exclusively for road construction.
Conservation Alabama is monitoring SB279 in the legislature, but not only do we have concerns about the seemingly unsound economic principles behind the bill, we are concerned about other effects of taking money out of the Alabama Trust Fund. Our meager state lands purchasing program, Forever Wild, which passed with a record 83 percent of the vote in 1992 – receives 10 percent of the interest from the fund. The less money in the fund, the less revenue there is for Forever Wild, and then the less amount of environmentally sensitive and prime hunting land can be bought and preserved. And national studies show time and time again that buying and preserving land raises property values and quality of life for surrounding communities.
Alabama’s economy cannot rebound and stabilize without long-term economic planning that makes the most sense for not only Alabama’s economy, but for Alabama’s public health and environment as well.