Alabama politics has always been geographically tribal.
For some folks in Birmingham and Huntsville, Mobile and Baldwin counties might as well be Mexico. For some folks in Mobile and Fairhope, Huntsville and Muscle Shoals might as well be Canada. Somewhere in the middle is our state capital, Montgomery.
The northern part of the state has the southern part of the state outnumbered, and for that reason, southwestern Alabama often gets the short end of the stick.
The future $3 – $6 toll on future Interstate 10 Bayway passengers is another one of those examples.
I have lived in Birmingham (Shelby County), Auburn and Mobile. Currently, I live in Huntsville. In other words, I have had a broad and in-depth exposure to the state’s major population centers. Further, in my reporting career, I have visited each of Alabama’s 67 counties. In my Alabama life and travels, I have come to realize the state’s power structure simply forgets Mobile and Baldwin counties — they are out of sight, and therefore out of mind.
That is why the Alabama Department of Transportation does not even think twice about levying a toll on I-10 travelers.
A toll would never happen if it were Interstate 59/20 through the middle of downtown Birmingham. It would never happen if it were University Boulevard headed to Bryant-Denny Stadium or Wire Road headed to Jordan-Hare Stadium.
To be fair, a lot of the traffic passing through Alabama on I-10 is not of Alabama. It is people passing through, coming from Mississippi headed into Florida or vice versa. The brunt of the tolling will be borne by drivers from out of state.
However, this toll dispute demonstrates how unique Alabama is compared to other coastal states.
Consider that in a lot of coastal states, the power structure comes from its coastline. There are exceptions here and there, but in a lot of states, the bulk of the population resides along the coast. And a state’s coastal electorate chooses governors and who runs the state house.
That is not true in Alabama, at least not anymore. Mobile’s reign lasted through the middle of the 20th century. Since then, other parts of the state have grown, and with a Gulf of Mexico shoreline of only 60 miles, Alabama’s Gulf Coast has a difficult time keeping up with other parts of the state in the perpetual race for political clout.
That does not mean it is game over for Southwest Alabama.
Currently, Madison and Limestone counties in North-Central Alabama are the belles of the ball. Did you hear they landed a big, new auto-manufacturing facility? How many times have the phrases “Mazda-Toyota” or “Toyota-Mazda” been uttered by Alabama’s policymakers to justify any major endeavor?
Yet, neither of those counties will come close to the growth anticipated for Baldwin County by 2040.
According to projections from the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama, Baldwin County’s population will increase by 65 percent over the next two decades. That will make it the state’s fourth largest county behind Jefferson, Madison and Mobile in 2040.
Unfortunately, it isn’t 2040 yet, which means the political consequences of forcing a toll on Baldwin County commuters traveling in and out of the city of Mobile are limited.
There is also a perception that Mobile and the rest of South Alabama have scored ill-gotten gains out of the increase in the fuel tax from the recently passed Rebuild Alabama Act with the Port of Mobile expansion.
There is no question the port is overall a positive development for Mobile. However, lumping it together with a spending package sold to the public as critical for public safety has created a perception in other corners of the state that southwestern Alabama made out like a bandit.
That’s hardly the case. About $12 million a year from the gas tax increase will go to the port. That is a significant amount, but consider that over $300 million will be raised for road and bridge construction by the new law.
Some, including U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, have suggested using Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA) funding in place of a bridge toll. Leaders in Montgomery are reluctant to consider that as an option. Why? Because they are looking to spend it elsewhere and they know the South Alabama delegation does not have the numbers to push for that as a solution.
For now, the perception prevails and people in the rest of the state shrug off the complaints from their fellow Alabamians to the south about tolls.
Lest we forget the BP settlement money used to fill a budget shortfall to help fund Medicaid and pay off state debt.
It is true the Alabama Gulf Coast was wronged when the legislature voted to steer funds away from oil-spill causes. In time, that will be long forgotten and mentioning it will come with even more shrugs and blank stares than before.
A moral argument is not going to win a political fight, and therein lies the problem. Instead, the solution is to bolster the region’s political presence in Montgomery, which cannot be done overnight.
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