Orr calls for widening I-565 from I-65 to Madison at legislative session wrap-up

State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, advocated again last week for the widening of a portion of Interstate 565, saying that not improving that stretch of road will “choke” future growth.

Orr, who has called the widening of the road to six lanes from Interstate 65 to Wall Triana Highway the most important transportation project in north Alabama, said that industrial/manufacturing corridor has the potential to grow even more.

Jobs and property tax revenue resulting from growth in that area are a huge benefit to Limestone County residents, and affect them whether they live in Lester, Ardmore or Elkmont, Orr said.

“It will be difficult to lure businesses here” if their employees and trucks aren’t able to easily move in and out of the area, Orr said. Without widening the roadway, “you will choke the future growth” in the southern part of the county, he said.

Orr was the first to speak at the Greater Limestone County Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 legislative session wrap-up that featured members of the Limestone County delegation at the Athens-Limestone Public Library.

The I-565 project is estimated to cost about $100 million.

Developments announced for that area include a $1.6 billion joint-venture project of automakers Toyota and Mazda in the Greenbrier area north of I-565. The plant, expected to employ about 4,000 workers, is scheduled to start operations in 2021. The automakers have announced that the plant would have the capacity to build 300,000 vehicles a year.

Bocar, a German-based automotive supplier, also plans to build a $115 million, 300-employee plant to the east of I-65 and north of I-565. The automotive plants will join other industries in the area, including Polaris and GE Aviation.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said after the event that he expects “some type of revenue measure” for the next legislative session that would help with infrastructure needs in the state.

“When you look statewide, we need additional types of revenue to help with state highways like (interstates) 565 or 65,” he said. “We don’t know what the product will be. We’re trying to figure out what’s going to be the final draft.”

In 2015, McCutcheon introduced a bill to increase the statewide gas tax by 5 cents a gallon, and then adjust the tax up or down by 2 cents each year, depending on consumer prices and other factors. That bill died.

“It’s not going to be an easy task to fix this problem,” McCutcheon said during the event. “The bottom line is we’re going to have to do something.”

Orr said one option for raising road funds would be a local option that would allow counties or cities to vote on whether to increase their gas tax for defined road projects.

“That’s an option for smaller projects,” Orr said. “It won’t solve the 565 issue.”

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, called for organized growth in Limestone County instead of a “hodge-podge” of development.

“I’m hoping you will preserve the beauty of this county,” Melson said. “I hope you’ll look at growth that’s beneficial” to its residents.

During the event, legislators talked about a few of the highlights of the 2018 session.

“We finished up with two very good budgets,” and the Legislature was able to give pay raises to educators and state employees and some extra money to retirees, McCutcheon said.

Teachers and education employees will get a 2.5 percent cost-of-living raise in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, and state workers will get a 3 percent cost-of-living raise. The Legislature also voted to give state and education retirees a one-time bonus equal to $1 for every month of service.

Rep. Phil Williams, R-Huntsville, who’s not seeking a third term, is pleased that legislation was approved that requires companies, organizations and state government to notify consumers if their personal and financial information is compromised. Orr has sponsored the measure for several years.

“I was happy to be on (Orr’s) team to get his bill passed,” Williams said. “It impacts every one of us. We’re all digital consumers.”