More than a year ago, the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) announced the final few miles of future Interstate 22’s connection to Birmingham would probably be completed by this October. Now the end date for the 213-mile expressway, currently also called U.S. Highway 78, has been extended.
ALDOT was still discussing a revised interchange completion date with Georgia-based contractor Archer Western at press time. “We’re trying to find out how much longer it will be, and just as soon as we know, we will issue a press release, ” says Linda Crockett, spokeswoman for ALDOT.
Work on the final few miles of the highway, including the stack Interstate 65 interchange, is inching forward, now that an issue with the interchange bridge design has been resolved. Until it’s complete, Birmingham-bound drivers must exit at County Road 77, about 3 miles short of I-65.
Such construction delays are not unusual for highway work. And the extended end date for the project is in keeping with the long, circuitous campaign to bring I-22 into existence.
A Memphis-to-Birmingham expressway was discussed as early as the 1950s, but an official plan never materialized. Joe Fuller, a Birmingham-area businessman who helped bring future I-22 to fruition, remembers his dad assuring him as a boy that one day there would be an easy route to Memphis instead of the congested, dangerous path of the old U.S. Highway 78. “We were on the Bessemer super highway, and I was remarking how much easier it was to travel with no traffic lights, ” Fuller says. “He said that one day there would be just such a road all the way to Memphis.”
Owner of Stead & Fuller Insurance in Homewood, Fuller is among a number of business and community leaders who have lobbied for the expressway over the years. But his tireless volunteer efforts from 1996 to 2000, when he led the charge for the legislative committee of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, gained him the distinction of having part of I-22 named for him. “When I came in as chair, I convinced the chamber to make the expressway their No. 1 priority, ” Fuller says. “We became an invincible team.”
The Joe F. Fuller Bridge currently takes I-22 drivers across the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River, entering the city limits of Graysville beyond the river’s eastern banks. “It feels good to have my efforts recognized. That road was always a passion of mine, ” Fuller says. “I knew we needed it for safety reasons and for the economic development not only of Birmingham but the rest of Alabama.”
Future I-22, beginning just east of Fulton, Mississippi, was approved by Congress in 1978 — called “Corridor X” and designated as a part of the Appalachian Development Highway System. Parts of the expressway have been under construction at various times ever since; in 2004, it was legally designated as “Future I-22.”
Although plans for the expressway have been modified a number of times, the basic idea has always been to link Memphis and Birmingham, both to improve safety for travelers and boost the economy of the region. Currently known as the new Highway 78, it’s a bigger, better version of the smaller 78 of yore. The expressway is awaiting final completion of the I-65 interchange before it will be officially designated as an “interstate” highway.
Future I-22 between the Mississippi state line and Jasper opened to traffic in November 2005. The most recent stretch of completed roadway, between Alabama exits 91 and 93, opened in December of 2009. Thanks in part to extension of federal highway stimulus funding in 2010, ALDOT was able to award Archer Western a $168.6 million contract for the I-65 stack interchange and completion of the eastern terminus of I-22.
“Originally, Corridor X was supposed to connect with the Northern Beltline that never was built, ” Fuller says. “Part of the delay in plans for the completion of the expressway was the complication of bringing the highway into ‘malfunction junction.’”
“I-22 not only makes travel from Memphis to Birmingham easier, it helps form a freeway that stretches to downtown Atlanta, ” Fuller says. “Now we have four interstates to Atlanta’s three.”
Things could have worked out a bit differently had Fuller and chamber staff members Mary Alice Kenley, Barry Copeland and Tom Cosby not joined forces to drum up Alabama legislative support and budget allocations to help fund the building of much of the interstate. “At the time, the Alabama Legislature was looking at funding an expressway that would run from Memphis to Huntsville to Atlanta, ” Fuller says.
The Birmingham chamber team contended that an expressway that bypassed Birmingham would be a disservice to the whole state, not just to Birmingham, and that it wouldn’t address the safety concerns on Highway 78. Garnering support for their preferred route started with nearby mayors.
“Mayor Adams of Adamsville really believed it was a necessity and made a presentation in favor of Corridor X a day before he died, ” Fuller says. “Ultimately, we were able to divert $750 million to be used for the I-22 expressway.”
John Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, became a supporter after being invited down to hear about Corridor X in light of a car accident involving students on the old highway 78 near Jasper. “Hall became passionate about the project, ” Fuller says.
Sen. Richard Shelby, who served as the chairman of the Senate’s Transportation Committee, and Rep. Spencer Bachus backed the chamber team’s efforts early on. Fuller and other team members convinced senators Jack Biddle and Bobby Denton also to get on board. Rep. Robert Aderholt was such a believer that he made Corridor X one of his top priorities after taking office. Governors Fob James and Don Siegelman were highly supportive of Corridor X. “We were able to enlist the agreement of so many people that there was just no stopping it, ” Fuller says.
Fuller hasn’t worked on the Corridor X campaign too much in the past 15 years, but he still loves to reminisce about it. And he takes the interchange delays in stride. He is satisfied that the future I-22 expressway is for the most part completed. “It’s something I dreamed of as a young man, and it’s wonderful to have been one of those who really helped make it happen, ” Fuller says.
Kathy Hagood and Joe De Sciose are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Hagood is based in Homewood and De Sciose is based in Birmingham.
Text by Kathy Hagood • Photo by Joe De Sciose