Roads and bridges have been vital to Alabama since its creation. This is probably true of most states; however, it has been especially true for Alabama for several reasons. First of all, we are a large state, geographically. Most metropolitan areas are a good many miles from the State Capitol in Montgomery. It is a long journey for folks from Huntsville, Mobile, and even Birmingham metro, and, if you go from one end of the state from Scottsboro to Dothan or Huntsville to Mobile you have been on a really long journey. We also have a lot of water in Alabama including lakes and creeks besides the major rivers that traverse our state. Therefore, that is why I included bridges in my opening sentence. Bridges are a necessity in our state more so than in other states. We also have a major Port in Mobile that needs to be sustained along with roads and bridges.
It is an acknowledged fact that having adequate roads is a major factor when it comes to economic growth and development in a state. Every economic developer will attest to this road factor. Roads and education are the primary components to economic growth for a state. Therefore, roads have been a primary campaign theme and criteria of accomplishment for every governor as long as I can remember.
It is and has been the most important factor in determining whether a governor has a legacy. It is something they can point to and hang their hat on. Going back the last 60 to 70 years there have been only three or four governors, who have what I call a real legacy, and one of the primary benchmarks for creating a legacy is roads.
John Patterson had a road legacy by virtue of the fact that he was governor during the Dwight Eisenhower Federal Interstate Act. This Interstate Act created by President Eisenhower is one of the most important presidential acts in history. In fact, most of the growth in the state and most of the population lives along I-65, which traverses the state and includes Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile.
George Wallace has numerous legacies but, if you knew him, roads were his number one priority. Wallace was also the most brilliant, accomplished, successful political governor in state history, and I stress the word political, so Wallace played politics when it came to roads. As the ultimate political animal in Alabama’s political history, you would expect nothing less.
Wallace lived by the political adage you reward your friends and punish your enemies. One slow news day, Wallace held a press conference and a young, liberal, muckraking, Birmingham news reporter asked the Governor, “Why do you give all the road projects in the state to your contributors, friends and cronies?” Wallace looked at the young boy incredulously and said, “Who do you think I ought to give them to, my enemies?”
The two political legends of my lifetime were George Wallace and Big Jim Folsom. They were elected governor by the rural and smaller, midsize cities and counties in the state. They neither ever carried the metropolitan counties of Jefferson, Madison and Montgomery. Therefore, these metro areas never received their rightful share of road dollars, especially under Wallace.
I have been asked over the years is it true the Birmingham area was the last metro area to get interstates completed because Wallace refused to appropriate any state funds to Birmingham to match the federal dollars needed for completion because they voted against him. My answer is short. The answer is yes. Wallace would acknowledge that to close friends and political allies.
The Governor who has the greatest legacy for roads in my lifetime and maybe history is the legendary Big Jim Folsom. Most of the rural roads in the state were built by Big Jim Folsom’s “Farm to Market” road program.
In Big Jim’s era, the state was agriculturally oriented. Almost everybody farmed and had crops they needed to get to the market. Most of the roads in the rural areas were dirt roads. If the rain came early, the roads would turn to mud and would be impassable. Therefore, the poor Alabama farmer who had toiled all year to make a crop could not get his produce to market. His year’s work was ruined by poor roads. Big Jim, who was the little man’s big friend, knew this and he fixed it by paving most of the rural roads. Big Jim has one of the most endearing legacies of any Alabama governor because of his “Farm to Market” road program.
See you next week.