By Dale Liesch and Gabriel Tynes
If anyone was in favor of Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Transportation’s (ALDOT) plan to fund any part of the proposed Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project’s $2.1 billion price tag with tolls, they didn’t step forward and express it at the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (ESMPO) meeting in Fairhope last Wednesday.
Instead, the MPO’s Policy Board, after hearing nearly three hours of public comments from more than 30 speakers either partially or totally opposed to the project, voted to remove it from their 2020-2023 Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) altogether. Within a few minutes, the governor published a statement acknowledging “this project is dead.”
Claiming it was ESMPO’s “failure to prioritize” the project, Ivey admitted “with the action taken today, there is no pathway forward .…” She also canceled the October meeting of the state Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which was scheduled to consider — or at least provide the illusion of considering — funding alternatives.
But as the 22-year-long saga to eliminate Interstate 10’s bottleneck at the George Wallace Tunnel came closer to reality in the past two years, Ivey and ALDOT have been lock-step in promoting the P3 alternative. As proposed, the public-private partnership would have awarded a 55-year contract to an equity firm to design, build and maintain the bridge in exchange for tolls beginning at $6 per car, with other controls and concessions allowing the firm to collect returns estimated at 500 percent or more of its initial investment.
Coupled with a groundswell of opposition from citizens in Coastal Alabama and beyond, eight of the nine ESMPO commissioners — save for the lone ALDOT representative — expressed displeasure with the project Wednesday before ultimately voting to stick a fork in it.
Still, Policy Board Chairman Dane Haygood, the mayor of Daphne, said killing the project was not his intention.
“I’m trying to represent all of our citizens and all of our leaders and we have no choice but to fight to protect ourselves from tolls that are not imposed anywhere else in the state,” he explained before casting his vote. “If anything, I’m trying to resuscitate something that is already dead.”
Earlier in the day, both Haygood and Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, the chairman of Mobile’s MPO, received a letter from Ivey encouraging them to keep the project on their respective TIPs. Projected on TV screens throughout the meeting, ESMPO member and Fairhope City Council President Jack Burrell pointed out the letter also included a “veiled threat.”
In essence, Ivey insinuated the state might not support southwest Alabama’s transportation projects if local officials did not support regional transportation projects, including the toll proposal.
But among the speakers and attendees Wednesday was Baldwin County’s local legislative delegation — two state senators, three state representatives and even two former state senators — who swore if there were political ramifications as a result of ESMPO’s actions, they would weather the storm together.
“All of us are opposed to this toll,” said State Rep. Chris Pringle, who is also running a campaign for Bradley Byrne’s congressional seat. “[Baldwin and Mobile counties] are tied together, economically, socially, politically, and this toll will tear our community apart. I work with subcontractors all day every day. Every person on my construction sites has told me we cannot afford this. If you want to get [the state’s] attention, pull this out. It will give your elected representatives in Montgomery a bargaining chip too. If [ALDOT Transportation Director John] Cooper was not interested in meeting with us before, he’ll be interested now.”
A lack of responsiveness and tone-deaf attitude from Montgomery were among the reasons people expressed dismay with the project. Its potential impacts to economic development, existing businesses, the medical community, tourism, the working class and commuting students were among the most repeated concerns. But there was also a fear of foreign investment into and control over local infrastructure, at a time when a new state gas tax is about to take affect and two communities on the Eastern Shore are facing additional school tax referendums.
Foley resident Chris Allen said a toll amounts to another tax, and the Ivey administration “has proven to be the most untrustworthy of our lifetime.”
“What Alabama will be known for is having our infrastructure and people sold out,” he said. “Cooper’s appointment strips us of protections and a system of checks and balances … This project has been 22 years in planning, but nobody ever planned on budgeting money and now it’s an emergency. A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.”
The Mobile MPO voted to table its decision on the project until its meeting next month, but the project could not have moved forward without the support of both organizations. In a statement after ESMPO’s vote, Stimpson suggested he had more faith in Ivey than most.
“Regarding the bridge — Gov. Ivey asked for more time to find alternatives to the toll model,” he wrote. “I believe that, given time, she would have been successful. Our region is growing, tourism is booming and the city of Mobile is adding jobs like never before. We need new infrastructure to accommodate that growth. I’m disappointed we could not find a path forward, but we will continue to work with anyone and everyone to find consensus for a solution.”
Meanwhile, first-term Baldwin County Commissioner Billie Jo Underwood, who also has a seat on the ESMPO Policy Board, said the alternatives and solutions should come first.
“I don’t accept there is no other way to do something,” she said at the meeting. “Unfortunately as it stands, it is no toll and no bridge. There may be consequences to [our vote] but we are willing to stand up to those consequences.”
Matt Erickson, ALDOT’s ESMPO representative, said “if funding and financing was available to ALDOT, we wouldn’t be sitting here today talking about tolls.”
Because of an inability to project costs while the economy changes over time, and the scale of the project was unclear, funding wasn’t considered until recently. So, instead, over the past two decades, ALDOT has been focused on gaining federal highway and environmental approvals.
All for nothing
For Ralph Atkins, ESMPO’s vote came too late. After 52 years of operating Southern Fish & Oyster at the foot of Eslava Street, Atkins sold the site of the 83-year-old business to ALDOT as part of the state’s condemnation proceedings. Now, he believes it was all for naught.
“They came and took it and then walked away,” he said. “They spend money like it’s unbelievable. They waste money. It’s unbelievable how much they waste.”
The state has already sunk nearly $60 million in the project’s preliminary work including condemnations. Atkins was compensated $675,000, but he believes the business was worth much more than that, despite his complaints about the woes of the local seafood industry. While the 76-year-old has been considering filing a lawsuit against the state for some time, now that it appears there will be no bridge, he is even more motivated. He said he doesn’t worry about himself as much as he does his bookkeeper, who worked there for 25 years, and his son, who worked there a decade right out of college.
“I need to get some of it for them,” Atkins said.
As for the bridge project itself, Atkins said he supported it, but like many, opposed the proposed tolls.
“It’s one of those catch-22 deals,” he said. “The bottom line is they’re going to get their money.”
Despite his anger at the state, Atkins’ days in the seafood industry may not be over. While it’s very tentative and relies heavily on the price, he said he is looking at property near St. Louis Street downtown to relocate the business.
“It depends on what it costs,” Atkins said. “It would have to be a hell of a good deal for us to do it.”
Atkins isn’t the only businessperson re-assessing things after hearing the bridge project could be dead. Local attorney Jason Darley, who moved his law practice due to the start of bridge construction efforts, called it “politics as usual.”
“It was poor planning,” he said.
Darley rented office space in the area of the proposed bridge route until April of last year when he moved.
“I moved from an office I’d had for seven years,” he said. “I had a lot of equity in there.”
While Darley called the decision frustrating, he said it worked out for him in the end because he shares office space now with a group of other attorneys.
Like Stimpson, Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bill Sisson seemed hopeful a plan could be reached in the future. He said the increased traffic congestion and aging infrastructure have a negative impact on everything from business recruitment and tourism to port commerce.
“Once the dust settles and clear heads come together, I think we’ll find solutions because we have to,” Sisson said. “If nothing is done, the problem will only get worse.”
In the future, Sisson said the chamber would like to have a “seat at the table” when those possible solutions are discussed.
But ALDOT spokesperson Tony Harris wrote in an email message that the state can’t say whether the project will have a future.
“It’s too early to speculate about next steps, except to say that the Mobile River Bridge project can’t move forward after being removed from the Eastern Shore MPO’s Transportation Improvement Program,” he wrote.
Of the $59.6 million the state has already spent on the project, $40 million was used for alignment studies, preliminary engineering, project development and seeking the federal approval known as the record of decision, Harris wrote.
Another $19.6 million has been spent on right-of-way acquisition, including the buying of property from business owners like Atkins.
“The acquired right of way coincides with the corridor identified in the Final Environmental Impact Statement, and it provides a protected corridor for possible future use,” he wrote.
In a brief statement on Twitter, U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, who is campaigning for U.S. Senate, wrote, “Now that we know the tolling proposal won’t work, we need real consideration of alternatives which eliminate the toll, reduce the size of the project, and utilize other funding options. ALDOT can’t just say ‘my way or no highway’ and walk away.”
But State Auditor Jim Zeigler, who takes credit for organizing an anti-toll Facebook group that grew to include more than 50,000 members, believes no progress can be made under the leadership of ALDOT Director John Cooper. On Aug. 29, an email from Zeigler’s office encouraged Gov. Ivey to fire Cooper, noting “five failures” of ALDOT, including the money already spent or lost in the project and a loss of credibility with citizens and elected officials.
“We need a taxpayers’ advocate who will listen to the local officials and the public as the next head of ALDOT,” Zeigler wrote.
During the ESMPO meeting, Burrell noted officials from Fairhope and Mobile had met earlier in the day to discuss ferry service between the two cities. It’s not a new idea, but Jessica Walker, Fairhope’s director of economic and community development, said it remains “super preliminary.”
Participating in the discussions were Stimpson, George Talbot and Paul Wesch representing the city of Mobile, and Wilson, Burrell, Walker and Richard Johnson from Fairhope.
“The reality is, it would be an incredible thing for us to do,” Walker said. “It seems like Mobile is in a renaissance right now and the downtown area especially is kind of the place to be. With the city of Fairhope and Baldwin County growing as much as they are growing, it is a natural fit that we would pair together in some way, shape or form to make this a reality. But this is a long game.”
Wilson said considerations include whether the service will cater to tourists, commuters or both. Each would require different infrastructure needs not limited to the size of terminals and staging areas and the types of ferries put into service. Historically, steamboats were the primary mode of transportation between the two counties before the causeway was constructed in the 1930s.
But the proposal is complicated. Mobile already has certain infrastructure in place. Fairhope does not, but it could be considered as part of a $6 million “working waterfront” grant recently awarded to the city via the Restore Act. The feasibility, economics, environmental effects, user interest and other considerations would have to be studied.
“If it was a tourism thing, we would definitely want to make sure it was a nod to our history,” Wilson said. “As far as commuting, that is a totally different infrastructure. You have to have a place where there is lots of parking, and we don’t want that down at the pier. We want to keep that pedestrian friendly.”
Wilson, a member of the state Restore Act council along with Stimpson, said ferry service could easily be categorized as an economic development project eligible for additional funding through the Restore Act, a pot of money available as a result of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Plans for the area already include pier upgrades, a living waterfront and bluff stabilization. Walker and Wilson suggested the plan could be modified or enhanced to make the waterfront more of a “town center,” as it was historically the center of Fairhope’s commerce, leisure and tourism.
“The biggest takeaway we have is that there is opportunity available for us,” Walker said, also suggesting the city could work with the county to incorporate the BRATS public transportation system, particularly with service to a new facility planned at the city’s parking garage.
A 2004 study on the potential success of high-speed passenger ferry service on Mobile Bay commissioned by the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission found the most feasible routes would be between Mobile and Fairhope, then possibly expanding to Orange Beach and Point Clear.
The study anticipated during the first year, the Mobile to Fairhope route would consist of 17 to 19 round trips each weekday, operating between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. On Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, the route would perform 11 round trips between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.
The study found the cost of ferries can vary greatly with smaller, 24-passenger models pricing out at $300,000 to larger ferries going for nearly $4 million. There would also be costs associated with building ferry terminals in both Mobile and Fairhope. The study shows Fairhope would have an investment of more than $300,000 for a terminal. The total capital costs to implement a two-ferry fleet would be $5.4 million, according to the 15-year-old study. About 80 percent of that total, or 6.1 percent, would be eligible for federal grants.
Operating costs for ferries across the bay could be anywhere between $56 and $241 per hour, the study found.
Based on $4.50 to $6 one-way fares, the study shows, a two-boat fleet would lose about $467,000 a year. As for additional funding, the study looked at a possible increase in lodging taxes. A 1 percent increase in those taxes would produce $500,000 per year, the 2004 study found.
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