Two members of the local legislative delegation held up a legal contract related to the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project over concern about tolls, but the move will do nothing to slow down the work, an Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) official confirmed.
Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore — who represents most of Baldwin County — chairs the Legislative Contract Review Committee. He said he and Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, helped to stall a $750,000 contract between ALDOT and Birmingham-based law firm Maynard, Cooper & Gale, which was hired to negotiate the public-private partnership that makes up the bridge project. The firm also has a Mobile office.
Albritton said the committee, which reviews state contracts on a monthly basis, delayed the deal for 45 days.
“Chris and I ran into each other in the elevator and discussed it,” Albritton said. “We decided we didn’t need it to go through lightning quick, so we held it up.”
The delay was an attempt to get ALDOT to listen to local legislators who oppose a toll being assessed on commuters once the project is completed, Pringle said.
“I’m totally against the toll,” he said. “They’re just moving ahead with this thing and not listening to us.”
The committee can’t stop the contract, Albritton said, and the 45-day delay expires before the agency’s current contract runs out in late September, ALDOT spokesman Tony Harris confirmed in an interview.
Only Gov. Kay Ivey can stop the contract completely, Harris said, as she has to sign it. In comments made to members of the press in Orange Beach on Monday, August 5, Ivey seemed willing to discuss alternatives, adding that she wasn’t necessarily in favor of a $6 toll.
“We’re looking at all options,” she said. “If we can reduce it that would be great, or if we had no toll that’d be great too, but we have got to find a way to pay for it.”
In a letter dated Aug. 2, Ivey called a meeting of the Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority to “discuss the proposed construction of a new bridge across the Mobile River.”
“In recent weeks there has been significant feedback regarding this proposal,” the letter reads. “Many legitimate questions have been raised and deserve answers. Unfortunately, a few urban myths have also been spread which are simply not true.
“I am sensitive to concerns of what a toll would do to working families, lower- and middle-class individuals, small businesses and students and the elderly, as I am sure you are,” the letter continues. “I am also concerned about the cost of doing nothing, which is what some of the opponents of the toll are suggesting.”
The meeting will be held Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 1:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the state Capitol building in Montgomery. Some toll opponents have taken issue with the Sept. 17 date, as it coincides with tax referendum votes in Spanish Fort and Fairhope.
“I didn’t know anything about the conflicts,” Ivey said on Monday.
The toll is being suggested as a way to make the bridge profitable to a third-party developer in order for the state to entice private contributions to the project. Federal INFRA grants, which have been awarded and Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act money was always part of the funding plan, Harris said. Even with those funding sources in place, ALDOT would still need to partner with a developer in the private sector to help pay for the project because of the state’s “fiscal realities,” he said. Harris wouldn’t speculate on whether it was too late to scrap the project if tolls could not be eliminated. He said the project was a way to ensure that Interstate 10 remains “a viable corridor for economic development and quality of life.”
“We’ve had transportation challenges in this state that go back decades and that have taken decades to solve,” he said. “We’re already two-plus decades into the realization that we would be moving toward gridlock because of annual growth. We’ve been engaged in a federally prescribed project planning process since 1997.”
Only in the last few years has the Mobile River Bridge project been far enough along to consider solutions to the financial part of the plan. To not build the bridge would mean worsening gridlock in the next 10 to 20 years, Harris said.
Pringle, who is also running for Alabama’s First U.S. Congressional seat, said ALDOT caused a lot of the gridlock problem in the way it originally designed the Wallace Tunnel and the Cochrane–Africatown USA Bridge. He said initially the Africatown Bridge was meant to connect Interstate 165 to the Bayway, but instead it dumps drivers out on the east side of the Bankhead Tunnel.
Harris confirmed that ALDOT has a provision, which allows the developer to charge 50 percent more to vehicles not equipped with a transponder. This means that a typical family vehicle traveling the full segment could pay up to $9 one way. However, Harris said, ALDOT will make a marketing push for the transponders, which will be sold to drivers, but will be designed to have reciprocity with many other tolling states.
Albritton said he has alternatives to the tolls in mind, but wouldn’t share them at this time.
ALDOT has said it is committed to providing a free route around the tolls, primarily focusing on the Causeway, the Bankhead Tunnel and the Africatown Bridge. The Wallace Tunnel, bridge and the federally mandated reconstruction of the Bayway will be tolled from Virginia Street to the Eastern Shore.
Baldwin County reporter John Mullen contributed to this report
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