Hidden among all the recent great news affecting Birmingham’s amazing rebirth is the story of the long-awaited opening of I-22, or Corridor X. That’s a shame, because no single success in our recent past may prove to be more important and have greater long-term favorable impact on this region than today’s ribbon cutting.
Since the days of the Roman Empire and the famous Appian Way, roads (and particularly crossroads) have always played a critically important role in the economic growth and prosperity of cities. In the earliest days of our country, waterway intersections were the places where communities grew into towns and cities.
Birmingham itself grew “like magic” from the intersection of two railway lines. In the second half of the 20th century, major cities developed around air connections. Simply put, commerce depends on intersections of roadways, waterways, rail lines and air travel as key elements to transport workers, deliver our food supplies, our raw and finished materials and ship our products.
The opening of the I-22 interchange opens provides us with an interstate link to Memphis. Birmingham now joins the elite ranks of top Southern cities with what’s considered a near-perfect interstate infrastructure. Counting Birmingham, only three cities in the South will now be favored with six interstate spokes emanating from their city center.
Joining us in this exclusive club are Atlanta and Nashville. And here’s the key: no one city has more than six spokes. This bodes extremely well for future business growth and the long-term commercial vitality of the Magic City.
Work on Corridor X began in the 1970s under the leadership of the late Alabama Congressman Tom Bevill. He had done most of the heavy lifting on the Tennessee Tombigbee (Tenn-Tom) Waterway project and started appropriating funds for a new Appalachian Highway Corridor – Corridor “X” – that would eventually connect Birmingham to Memphis. Unfortunately, after years of routine, but modest, appropriations, that work essentially ground to a halt following his retirement in 1995.
At the same time, rapidly-growing Huntsville was flexing its collective political muscle and was making a big play for a new corridor – Corridor Y – to be routed near their city along US Highway 72, thus connecting Memphis to Atlanta on a North Alabama track.
In the mid-1990s, a strongly-worded letter arrived at the offices of the former Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (today’s Birmingham Business Alliance) from the late Adamsville mayor, Leland Adams. Adamsville straddled the highly dangerous Highway 78 and he pleaded, “without your Chamber getting hot on this subject and providing the necessary leadership … we will continue to wander in the Corridor X (I-22) wilderness.” He made a compelling case that old Highway 78 was carrying interstate levels of traffic between Memphis and Birmingham and that the road had become a deathtrap.
Birmingham booster Joe Fuller, a local insurance executive, was then serving as chair of the Chamber’s Transportation Committee. He put it in vivid perspective early on. The re-routing of Corridor X through Huntsville would’ve essentially put the vast majority of the new road within the state of Tennessee, not Alabama. At a legislative committee meeting in Montgomery where the re-routing was being favorably discussed, Joe asked, “What is this, a meeting of the Tennessee legislature?” He powerfully made his point and it was “game on.”
At a packed organizational meeting convened at the Harbert Center in January, 1997, the Chamber quickly formed the Corridor X Task Force. Key partners from the beginning included Mayor Adams, Mayor Don Goetz of Jasper, Walker College, the Walker County Chamber of Commerce, Walker Baptist Hospital, the Birmingham Regional Planning Commission, key Chamber members and interested citizens. Our Washington partners included Senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, along with Congressmen Robert Aderholt and Spencer Bachus.
With the expert lobbying help of Chamber Governmental Affairs Director Mary Alice Kenley, the first Washington Fly-In was organized, and produced outstanding results. In the initial round of appropriations for the Corridor X project, annual federal funding jumped from tens of millions of dollars a year to more than $100 million in a single year.
And that trend continued. We started putting together multiple trips to Washington. In that first effort, fewer than a dozen stalwarts went to the nation’s capital to voice a single, forceful message: Fund Corridor X! In the first decade of the new century, the Washington Fly-In would consistently bring together 75-100 business leaders each spring to meet with the region’s Congressional delegation in Washington.
The delegation responded in significant ways, especially Senator Richard Shelby with his influential funding role on the Senate Appropriations and Transportation Committees. Senator Sessions and his staff helped immensely by assuring Corridor X’s inclusion in the Surface Transportation Efficiency Program/STEP 21. And from the beginning, our House Members played critical roles, especially Congressman Aderholt from his seat on the House Appropriations Committee, and Congressman Bachus on the House Transportation Committee. Both consistently found ways to earmark the much-needed funds.
Next, attention was turned to the State of Alabama. Local support was critical as federal funding only provided 80 percent of the construction cost. Multiple visits to then-Gov. Fob James (and later Governors Don Siegelman and Bob Riley) paid off when the Birmingham Chamber was repeatedly assured that “the state would find the money to match all federal funds for Corridor X.”
For the better part of 10 years, every Chamber meeting with our elected officials ended with Q&A from our members. The question was always, “how much money are you going to put into Corridor X?” The impact of the business community speaking with a single voice was finally having the desperately needed cumulative effect.
Years of lobbying and a consistent, frequent presence in Washington and Montgomery has finally produced the desired result. The opening of the I-22/I-65 interchange represents the investment of more than $1 billion for this interstate connection to Memphis.
The value in economic development along the route is immense and will continue to grow. Importantly, the building of a safe, modern, limited-access highway between these two deep-South commercial centers will end up saving countless lives. And help assure Birmingham’s economic dynamism for decades to come.
As the ribbon is cut today, let’s celebrate the successful conclusion of this massive public works project as intensively as we have enjoyed celebrating all the other great and positive things happening here in Birmingham.
Tom Cosby retired three years ago from a 35 year career at the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce/Birmingham Business Alliance and is currently working on the Lyric & Alabama Theatres, Rickwood Field, Birmingham’s Veteran’s Day Parade and bringing the world famous Appalachian Trail to Alabama.
Barry Copeland served for many years as a top leadership volunteer for the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce and later joined the staff as senior vice president for the Chamber and later the Birmingham Business Alliance. He has spent most of his 42-year career in the Birmingham area and is currently a partner in a media consulting firm, Outspoken Communications LLC, and is president of The Copeland Strategies Group LLC, a company he founded in July of 2014.