A chamber of commerce, or a business alliance or association, should never underestimate the importance of its value proposition with respect to transportation and public policy. Local government and business leaders coming together with a common agenda can exert a powerful influence on national policymakers and in the process further the cause of community betterment.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Memphis, TN and Birmingham, AL were the two largest cities in America not connected by an interstate highway. Despite the best intentions of the Eisenhower administration’s complex interstate construction plan, it was dangerous to drive from Memphis to Birmingham on old U. S. Highway 78 – a winding two-lane road dotted along its shoulders with white crosses marking the sites of previous fatal traffic accidents.
A portion of the route through Mississippi had been built and paved by 1990, but Alabama’s efforts to complete the project languished – caught up in an endless string of minimal Congressional appropriations. For many years, the four-lane, limited access highway from Memphis through Mississippi ended in a barricade just across the Alabama state line.
In 1997, the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (today’s Birmingham Business Alliance) organized its first official Washington Fly-In. The single focus of the trip was to secure funding for what was then called the Corridor X project. A team of 12 chamber volunteers and local government leaders joined together on that first visit to meet with Senator Richard Shelby and plead the case for highway funding. It worked, and for the past 16 years, the Chamber – now the Alliance – has made its annual Washington Fly-In a key part of the organization’s annual public policy strategy.
Appropriations that had averaged in the $10 million per year range in the 1970s, 80s and 90s became really significant chunks of funding. The year after that first visit, Senator Richard Shelby led an Alabama delegation effort to appropriate in excess of $100 million for 1998 – all of it funneled to the project through the government’s Appalachian Regional Commission. Succeeding years saw similar large appropriations as the once lackluster interstate highway project grew closer to reality.
Today, the final construction project on the corridor from Birmingham to Memphis nears completion. A ribbon-cutting is planned for the last, massive interchange that will end up costing more than most of those early full-year appropriations. And along the way, cities and counties are growing at every intersection development on the new interstate route.
Is a Washington visit on your chamber’s list of projects this year? Most members of Congress are delighted to meet with local business and civic leaders. At the same time, most chamber volunteers are willing to pay their own way to Washington in exchange for an opportunity to meet with a Senator or Congressman. It could be a win-win for your local chamber, with jobs and economic growth as an important benefit.
Washington Fly-In Briefing Program Information: As part of your Washington fly-in, schedule a visit to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to receive a policy briefing on the issues of greatest importance to your community. A complimentary benefit of your membership with the U.S. Chamber, the Washington Fly-In Briefing Program gives your delegation a front-row seat to policy updates from top issue and advocacy experts. Since its inception in 2000, delegations of local business and community leaders in groups of all sizes have taken advantage of this valuable resource at the Chamber headquarters, one of the most historic locations in the nation’s capital, located on Lafayette Park directly across from the White House. Request your briefing today or contact 202-463-5560 or firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.