Baldwin County Commission President Billie Jo Underwood reversed course and bucked the trend of every elected city council member on the Eastern Shore plus her four colleagues on the commission, by voting against a resolution in support of the new Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project Feb. 18.
Underwood said it didn’t go far enough to ensure locals could travel without paying tolls.
“There’s one word in there that bothers me: with the ‘hope’ that the project can be funded without the use of tolling,” she said. “I’m not advocating we change their resolution, but I would like to see the commission add to their resolution with the understanding this project could be funded without a toll.”
Last year, the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (ESMPO) voted to exclude the previous $2.1 billion bridge and Bayway plan from its long-range transportation plan, effectively killing the Alabama Department of Transportation’s (ALDOT) plan to fund a large portion of the project with tolls of an announced $6 each way.
But on Jan. 22, ESMPO approved a new, $1.4 billion scaled-down plan that preserves free “legacy routes,” including the existing Bayway, Causeway and tunnels, but did not eliminate the possibility of imposing tolls.
As a member of ESMPO, Underwood herself voted for the same resolution with the same “hopeful” language just last month. But now, even though the city councils of Fairhope, Daphne and Spanish Fort have since unanimously endorsed the new plan, Underwood said she’s had second thoughts.
“The question all along has been funding, and I think that’s still the question,” she said. “It’s not that I’m not in support of the project — there is a difference between being in support of the project and being in support of the way the project is funded. I’m just at a point right now where there are a lot of things we can’t answer and just because that door is still open, I’m uncomfortable with it.”
Commissioners Jeb Ball, Joe Davis and Charles Gruber voted to adopt the resolution as written. The Mobile MPO has tabled the resolution until its next meeting.
Gruber suggested if the commission was not unified internally and externally, it could threaten the progress of the plan.
“We have to be all in together on this project because it’s not going to happen if we both have a different plan,” he said. “We all want to be unified and come together. I think that’s where we failed last time.”
Both Gruber and Ball said they were comfortable with the language that preserved legacy routes, and Gruber said as such; he would not be opposed to a “reasonable” toll for those who chose to use the proposed expressway and bridge.
Common Sense Campaign President Lou Campomenosi said unity was paramount to what they are calling a “consensus plan.”
“The argument we’re making for the consensus plan is that it does bring about a consensus,” he said. “And even though we are having some difficulties with Mobile, the fact of the matter is, we have had Spanish Fort City Council unanimously approve it, Daphne City Council unanimously approved it and Fairhope City Council unanimously approved it. We think that it’s important to send a signal to Montgomery that there is a unified approach to what’s going on here.”
Separately last week, Baldwin County Sheriff Hoss Mack presented recently promoted deputies and staff to the commission, stating there were 27 promotions and 63 new hires at his office in the past year, bringing his total to 321 employees. Not all new hires were new positions, he said, but some were the result of retirements and attrition.
Mack said the office is still compiling its annual service report, but he said there was “about a 1 percent overall increase in criminal activity” resulting in about 100,000 calls for service.
After Mack’s presentation, the commission approved a resolution and lease agreement with the Public Building Authority of Baldwin County to issue warrants for a $35.9 million project to build a new corrections center.
Exact specifications for the new jail have not been disclosed, but when it was considered in the 2020 budget last year, Finance Director Ron Cink said it would house 300 to 400 prisoners and include a facility for females. The existing facility has 651 beds.
A provision of the resolution approving the new jail states “no federal prisoners will be held at the project. The commission will house all federal prisoners at the county’s other public jail facility … which is more than reasonable and sufficient to house the approximately 120 federal prisoners that the county houses on average each month.”
Warrants will be issued for “acquiring, constructing and equipping a new county public jail facility for local prisoners only and related improvements on property transferred to the authority by the county,” it says.
The commission also entered into an agreement with Airbus to “provide science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning opportunities for Baldwin County students” via Flight Works Alabama.
According to a news release, the program will invite 50 10th grade STEM students from each high school in Baldwin County to participate in a day of hands-on learning at Flight Works Alabama and the Airbus final assembly line in Mobile.
The agreement will also allow all of Baldwin County’s 11th grade students to apply for FlightPath9, which provides selected students an opportunity to participate in an aviation training and industry certification program for a total of 200 hours of instruction. After completing FlightPath9, students will be prepared to enter Airbus’s Fast Track job training program which will directly support workforce development in Baldwin County.
Airbus General Manager Daryl Taylor told the commission the company has “seen unparalleled growth over the region” and currently has 1,400 employees. They are looking to hire an additional 300 by the end of the year.
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