Mar 08 2007

Shelby chides leaders on transit: `We're losing out'

Birmingham News

Birmingham-area government and business leaders teamed up Wednesday to take a wish list of transportation and health-care projects to Washington, asking for federal funding for new roads, a better bus system, more construction at UAB, and a law that helps HealthSouth Corp.

Transportation issues - both new concrete for cars and buses for public transit - routinely dominate the agenda of the seven-county organization, and this year was no exception.

Although Congress has set aside $100 million over several years to establish broader bus service along Interstate 65 south of Birmingham, local governments need to provide a steady source of revenue to get the federal dollars. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a longtime advocate of public transportation for Birmingham, urged the group to agree on a plan.

"My message to you is that it's 2007, and you're losing time and you're losing opportunities," Shelby told the group of business executives, mayors, county commissioners and others. In past years, about $87 million in federal funding was left on the table because of disputes over taxes and management of the system.

Every year the chamber group meets with Shelby, and every year he scolds them for missing out on money that will instead be spent in other cities with regional transportation plans.

"Folks, we're losing out," Shelby said.

The Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce also asked for continued federal funding for construction of the biomedical research complex at the University of Alabama at Birmingham that is named for Shelby and his wife. UAB was in line to receive an additional $30 million for this year but Congress scaled back special line items for local projects. The chamber is pursuing it again for the 2008 budgets, which Congress is working on now.

The chamber also adopted a top legislative initiative of HealthSouth Corp., to stop a Medicare rule that would restrict the types of patients who qualify for inpatient rehabilitation services. And they're asking Congress to maintain a corporate tax deduction that benefits producers of coal bed methane.

Among the transportation projects the chamber is lobbying for:

$40 million a year for Corridor X, the future Interstate 22, and $15 million to buy right of way, designs and conduct preliminary engineering for the first five segments of the Northern Beltline

$6.4 million for redesign and construction of the interchange at U.S. 280 and Interstate 459 south of Birmingham

$4.8 million to extend Lakeshore Drive from U.S. 150 to Interstate 459.

The chamber has also endorsed seeking $5 million to go toward a $20 million performing arts center for the Alabama School of Fine Arts Foundation and $5 million from three federal agencies to acquire land and develop trails for Red Mountain Park.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addressed the chamber group briefly at a reception Wednesday night on Capitol Hill. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills, has endorsed McCain for president.