After four years of discussing its own rules and policies, the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council (AGCRC) has taken a major step in determining which of the hundreds of proposed projects will be funded with BP monies allocated through the RESTORE Act.
Last month, all 10 AGCRC members submitted a list of priority projects, and from more than 200 submissions, 30 received the four votes needed to move on for further evaluation. The projects, valued at a combined $413,775,386, focus on “infrastructure, economic development, tourism or planning assistance” — all areas the council previously agreed to prioritize.
The AGCRC consists of Gov. Robert Bentley, Alabama State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons, the presidents of the Mobile and Baldwin county commissions, and the mayors of Bayou La Batre, Dauphin Island, Fairhope, Gulf Shores, Mobile and Orange Beach.
Though the group hasn’t met formally since late January, AGCRC Director Eliska Morgan said “internal discussions” have been ongoing about which organization(s) will actually conduct the evaluations the council will use to help determine what projects will be included in its first Multi-Year Implementation Plan (MIP).
“That hasn’t been solidified yet, but now that we know the projects that made it over this hurdle, it gives us a better feel for how to identify who will perform the evaluations,” Morgan said. “We still have to notify the submitters that their project is moving forward, and we’ll also ask that they begin collecting information they may already have available on their proposal.”
Those submitters include a wide range of local government and private organizations as well as environmental and community groups, though the “economic focus” of the first MIP brought government submissions to the forefront.
While a number of critical infrastructure improvements in smaller communities such as Mount Vernon, Prichard and Satsuma made the cut, so did other, more costly proposals including a $126 million batch of highway widening projects in Baldwin County and a $52 million plan to add an auto import and export facility to the Port of Mobile.
The recent developments have offered the first glimpse into what the priorities of the current AGCRC members might be, though there is still a long way to go before any funding is actually received. As anticipated, there’s also already more projects than there is money to fund them.
For its share, Alabama is projected to receive $725 million through the RESTORE Act, and the AGCRC has direct control over $373 million of that. However, the money will be received in installments paid over the next 15 years, meaning only so much will be available as members decide over what period of time the plans in the first MIP will be implemented.
According to Morgan, only $86 million is available today, which means that is all that would be available in a one-year MIP. In a three-year plan, $117 million would be available, and in a five-year plan — the longest permitted under the law — the AGCRC would have up to $170 million to fund projects.
Another factor is the “further evaluations” will likely cost money, which will also be pulled from the limited resources available to the AGCRC. While there has been talk of using existing public and nonprofit agencies to lower or eliminate those expenses, Morgan said the approach could come with another cost: time.
“That means relying on someone to do something when they have spare time, and most state agencies are already stretched thin,” she said. “Another option is to pay someone to do it. Obviously, you’d have more control over the timing, but the challenge with that is having the money available to pay for those evaluations.”
There was no limit to the numbers of projects AGCRC members were able to include in their lists for further evaluation, and some members took vastly different approaches. Gov. Robert Bentley only voted in favor of 15 projects, while Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon voted in favor of 55.
While support for many projects crossed county and city lines, no project saw unanimous support from all the AGCRC members. Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier said he was happy to see five projects “make it to the next round,” while adding there’s no guarantee they’ll be funded.
Collier said Dauphin Island’s proposals could have a ripple effect on South Mobile County, especially a pair planned in Aloe Bay. Valued at $22 million, the projects aim to add a sewer treatment plant to address water quality while preserving natural habitat and adding public access. However, another would also add a mixed-use marina, fishing pier and new retail spaces.
While such a tourism-focused project can create new jobs and tax revenues, Collier also acknowledged not everyone on the island shares the same zeal for new development.
“Our town has a comprehensive plan, and we need to be and are mindful of any prospective growth,” he added. “It can’t be a free-for-all as far as development goes, but I think we do still have room for some managed growth.”
In all, Dauphin Island and Bayou La Batre saw the most projects greenlighted, and County Commission President Merceria Ludgood supported the majority of those, adding both areas were hit particularly hard by the oil spill.
“As far as I’m concerned, Bayou La Batre and Dauphin Island were ground zero,” she said. “We all experienced loss, but not to the extent that they did, so their priorities were front and center in the decisions I made.”
In all, a total of $62.3 million of proposed projects will be evaluated for Bayou La Batre, including a redevelopment of the city docks, a “safe harbor” for mooring vessels during storms, the extension of a wastewater outfall line in Portersville Bay and upgrades to the city’s water and fire suppression systems.
Ludgood supported most of the projects proposed in Mobile County, including four submitted by her own engineering staff, though the only one to move forward was an $8 million ecotourism project connecting waterways throughout several municipalities.
Ludgood also cast the only votes for two projects pushed by her fellow commissioners, sidelining a $59 million plan to address unpaved roads in Commissioner Jerry Carl’s district and Commissioner Connie Hudson’s proposed $40 million soccer and aquatic complex.