TUSCUMBIA — For years, Alabama Highway Director John Cooper has said the state had a champagne appetite on a beer budget when it came to planning new road projects.
Cooper, who is about to mark his second year as director, made the statement Tuesday to a room of municipal and county officials from the Alabama Department of Transportation's eight-county Second Division.
He was setting up a discussion about how, for years, the department would plan new highway projects, either new roads or new lanes for existing roads, knowing there wasn't enough money to complete them.
The state has bought rights of way for projects that were never completed and started projects that sat dormant for years.
Cooper came to the Second Division on Tuesday to announce that things are changing.
"We need to be honest and up front and tell people what we can do and what we can't do," he said.
At the front of the auditorium, a map showing various road projects highlighted in red and green sat on an easel. The projects represented $4 billion in new construction planned during the next 10 years.
Blue lines representing more projects that need to be completed brought the total to $6 billion.
Because revenue used to build and maintain roads and bridges has been static for the past 20 years and construction costs have more than doubled, Cooper said the transportation department has to change the way it plans new construction.
The $4 billion in new construction will be reduced to a more manageable $1.5 billion in the next 10 years.
As a result, several projects, some that have been planned for years and some that have already been started, have been removed from the state's long-range plans.
Second Division Engineer James Brown explained which projects were being axed and which ones will be completed.
In Colbert County, widening Wilson Dam Road in Muscle Shoals will be completed to Alabama 20.
A project to widen the two-lane section between Avalon Avenue and the Norfolk Southern Railway overpass to five lanes is under way.
A proposed project that would carry U.S. 43 to the east starting near the cotton flats and ending at Wilson Dam Road and Alabama 20 is off the table, as is a project to add a fifth lane to a segment of Second Street in Muscle Shoals.
In Lauderdale County, the widening of U.S. 43 north to the Tennessee line will be completed from U.S. 72 in Killen to Alabama 64.
However, the road will remain two lanes from there to the state line for the foreseeable future.
Removed from the system are projects to light the intersection of U.S. 72 and U.S. 43 in Killen, a widening project on Chisholm Road between Rasch Road and Section Line Road, and widening U.S. 72 from Indian Springs to the Shoal Creek Bridge.
In Franklin County, the widening of Alabama 24 west of Russellville to the Mississippi line will be completed.
The Haleyville bypass on Alabama 13 will be scrapped, even though the state recently opened bids to construct a set of bridges over Bear Creek.
Two sets of bridges already have been built along the route, which runs east from near Spruce Pine and connects back to Alabama 13.
Also removed from the list is a sign project on Alabama 24 from Decatur to Russellville, an intersection project in Hamilton at U.S. 43 and Alabama 278, additional lanes on Alabama 172 in Hackleburg and a widening project on Alabama 278.
The Transportation Department also made cuts in other Second Division counties and in other divisions throughout the state.
During the nearly two-hour presentation, Don Arkle, the transportation department's assistant chief engineer for policy and planning, said because of inflation, highway funds for the 2013 fiscal year are basically the same as what the department had in 1991.
State fuel taxes, which are used to fund various highway projects from new construction to safety programs, have not risen since 1992. Federal fuel taxes have not increased since 1993, but the revenue from that increase wasn't made available until 1997, Arkle said.
Arkle also noted that $92 million was diverted from the $1.2 billion 2013 highway budget and sent to other state agencies, including the Administrative Office of Courts and the Department of Public Safety.
The budget is broken up and money set aside for such things as interstate highway maintenance, funding for metropolitan planning organizations, transportation alternatives, bridge replacement, routine highway maintenance, safety projects, resurfacing and other purposes.
Arkle said there is $150 million available for "capacity enhancement," which is the construction of new roads or the addition of new lanes to existing highways.
Cooper said the transportation department will review projects annually to see if there is a reason to place them back in the system.
When asked about new funding sources, Cooper said that is a question for the policymakers in Montgomery and Washington.
Transportation department officials made it clear the cuts only involve new construction projects and will not affect the state's resurfacing program or bridge replacement and maintenance projects.
It also will not affect funding for the Shoals Metropolitan Planning Organization. In fact, the MPO is getting about $160,000 more this fiscal year than the last.
"We are now getting $1,624,715," said Jesse Turner, Transportation Planning Director for the Northwest Alabama Council of Local Governments. "We were getting $1,465,082."
That amount does not include the matching funds provided by local governments.
State Rep. Greg Burdine, D-Florence, said while he hates to see the completion of U.S. 43 shelved, he understands what the highway director is trying to do.
"I like director Cooper, and I think he's being straightforward with us," Burdine said.
"They have a plan. It's not what everybody wants, but it's more realistic under the money we're working with."
Because completing U.S. 43 was part of his campaign, Burdine said he will continue to lobby for the project and expects that one day it will be returned to the long-range plan.
"I'm going to be in director Cooper's ear," he said. "He's always willing to listen and he's shooting straight with us."
"I'm going to keep promoting it and keeping it out there and not let it get forgotten about."
Russ Corey can be reached at 256-740-5738 or russ.corey@TimesDaily.com.