Around 60 people attended at town hall meeting in Magnolia Springs Monday hosted by U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, who was the first Republican candidate to announce his campaign to defeat Democratic Sen. Doug Jones earlier this year. But Byrne deflected an opportunity to talk openly about his Senate campaign, instead focusing on questions from the audience for about 40 minutes.
While a couple of attendees expressed concerns about immigration and health care, which Byrne called two of his “biggest issues” along with veterans’ affairs, the majority of questions centered on the most politically divisive issue in South Alabama at the moment: the Alabama Department of Transportation’s proposal to toll drivers as much as $6 each way to cross the proposed I-10 Mobile River Bridge.
With almost every answer, Byrne explained his role in Congress is limited, while he encouraged those concerned about the $2 billion project’s financing scheme to contact state legislators, the governor’s office and ALDOT.
“40 percent of the people who cross that bridge are my constituents,” Byrne said while recounting a brief history of the project’s evolving funding plan, explaining how early expectations with federal money fell through. “We’ve been talking to the Trump administration since the moment they came in office … we do not have an infrastructure plan from the president yet. He met with (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi and (Senate Minority Leader Chuck) Schumer a month or so ago and they are talking about it. In the meantime, my office and I have been working with the Federal Highway Administration and ALDOT to get through holdups we’ve been having on regulatory approvals. That will be done in the next few weeks and the state will be ready to go at that point. But the state has to decide how do we pay for it. The federal government does not have the manpower to tell them how to do that.”
Larissa Goodrich of Spanish Fort joined several other attendees in sharing their concerns with how tolls will affect workers on minimum wage or disabled people who may have medical appointments across the bay.
“I have the power to offer different alternatives and one is the money Alabama gets from GOMESA,” Byrne said, speaking of the federal program that allows Gulf Coast states to share the revenues from offshore oil and gas production. “You can take that money and bond it and get a fairly significant amount of money in return. The tolls for people from Alabama can either be zero or brought down significantly from what people from other states pay.”
Charles Perry drove from Satsuma to confront Byrne about the challenges a toll will present to the poor and middle class, telling the congressman that if the bridge is funded as planned, it will lead to job loss and put more people on federal welfare programs. Another woman called the toll “discriminatory.”
“They expect us to pay for this out of our pockets when the federal government has so much waste and corruption is so evident,” Perry said after the meeting. “Whoever this [public private partnership] company is, they will come in and socialize the cost with the taxpayers but privatize the profits. Then if it all falls apart, they walk away without a loss and the taxpayers will have to pay for the whole thing. That’s no way to build a bridge and it’s no way to run a country.
“It’s like I told him, when you kick the feet out from under the poorest among us, then it has to be made up somehow,” Perry continued. “Nobody’s going to stand to see starving American children on the streets. It will hurt an entire generation and the federal government will have to pick that up.”
Byrne agreed there was a lot of financial waste in Washington, but again encouraged people to put pressure on state officials.
“[ALDOT] doesn’t have an agreement for this kind of private tolling anywhere else in the state,” he said. “They had a comment period, but don’t let the fact the comment period is over stop you … my position is … we all pay taxes for roads every time you fill up with gas. That ought to pay for where we need to drive without paying a toll. If gas tax isn’t enough, there is a lot of money in the federal government — some of which is being used for things we’re not supposed to be doing — and spend it on the things that matter.”
More than one person asked if Byrne has had any conversations with his predecessor in Congress Jo Bonner, who recently took a position as chief of staff in Gov. Kay Ivey’s office. Byrne admitted he has not, but suggested he would.
“I’ve been talking to people at the state level about this and my concern with tolls since I’ve been in [Congress],” he said. “I have not had a direct conversation with Jo Bonner since he has been in the governor’s office but it’s getting to be very timely. I spend most of my time taking with people at ALDOT and the state finance department. I am very much against the tolls. But I can’t emphasize enough that as a federal official, I can’t tell state officials what to do. Frankly not enough Congressmen recognize the limitations on their roles, but I’m trying to be respectful of those boundaries and frankly I think that makes me a better advocate for that.”
State Auditor Jim Zeigler, who has spearheaded a large and active Facebook group against the tolls, admitted he encouraged some of the participants to attend the town hall and ask questions.
“The good news is Congressman Byrne has announced clearly he is against the toll plan,” Zeigler said. “He followed that by saying his authority is limited to federal action … I can show him how federal funding can pay for the I-10 bridge in full.”
Asked to elaborate, about an hour later Zeigler sent an email to Lagniappe suggesting the bridge could be built as designed using bonded GOMESA funds, a $150 million federal INFRA grant and with “$15 billion in new savings from U.S. Postal operations.” In lieu of that, he said the bridge can be scaled back from it’s “Taj Mahal” design to a more affordable $800 million option, while leaving the existing Bayway.
Separately, Zeigler mentioned he has established an “exploratory committee” to consider running his own Senate campaign before the Federal Election Commission’s deadline in November.
“Right now, I am focused on my day-to-day work as state auditor and leading the opposition to the tolls,” he said.
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