When the Baldwin County Commission signed a routine agreement with the state last month to get some major highway projects moving, a mistrustful Frank Burt voted against it.
The senior county commissioner recalled at least two other occasions, once under former Gov. Bob Riley and later under Gov. Robert Bentley, when fanfare accompanied announcements that Highway 181 would be widened ultimately to U.S. 98. Today, the widening has gotten as far as County Road 64.
With the county now facing the loss of millions of dollars of BP oil spill settlement money, Burt said he won’t say, “I told you so.” He wants those highway projects as badly as anyone.
But, he said, “Somebody doesn’t burn me twice. I wasn’t about to get burned again and authorize them to use Baldwin County’s money to fix state roads. It just wasn’t right.”
It’s still unclear what the final reduction will be, but the loss is at least $30 million and could be as high as $45 million. The post-presidential election boom in the stock market combined with rising interest rates mean a state bond issue will yield less than originally projected.
By how much? “I can’t tell you at all right now,” said Vince Calametti, southwest region engineer for the Alabama Department of Transportation.
The Alabama Economic Settlement Authority approved a multi-million-dollar bond issue backed by proceeds from BP oil spill payments. At one time, Mobile County was supposed to get $65 million and Baldwin County $55 million, Calametti said. But if the state in fact gets $45 million less than originally projected, the counties could receive only $39.95 million and $34.03 million, respectively, he said.
Cutbacks are likely. Calametti said the projects will be re-evaluated, but possibilities are the Highway 98 project in Mobile County and the southernmost stretch of Highway 181 in Baldwin County.
In Mobile County, some four and a half miles of Highway 98 remain unfinished. The long-running project involves rerouting and widening the heavily traveled route between Prichard and Mississippi, where so many serious or fatal accidents have occurred it has earned the nickname “Bloody 98.”
Although earth work, drainage work and bridges are mostly finished, some uncompleted parts of the highway could end up being paved for fewer lanes, Calametti said. Additional lanes could be added back later.
In Baldwin County, the likely casualty would be the widening to five lanes of Highway 181 from Baldwin County 48 south to Baldwin County 32. Traffic continues to increase on Highway 181, but it isn’t as bad south of County Road 48, Calametti said.
Both counties continue to suffer from the compromise made in the most recent special session of the Legislature, when the local delegation had to scramble to get a share of the BP money even though the coastal counties suffered by far the most environmental and economic damage from the oil spill.
“You’ve got to keep in mind that — and I know people get tired of hearing it but it’s something they have to consider — we went from zero to whatever we wind up with,” said State Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Gulf Shores. At one point, the bill allocating the money had 100 percent going to the state.
As part of the compromise, the local delegation agreed that if the bond issue revenue proved to be less than projected, the reduction would come out of their share, McMillan said.
“We knew it was a gamble, but we just didn’t realize the market would turn around so fast.”
The delegation will look for other sources of money, he said.
Five major highway projects totaling $126.6 million were on the list when the Baldwin County Commission approved the agreement with ALDOT in mid November. At the time, the funding was expected to be $55 million from the state oil spill bond issue, $35.8 million from the state and $35.8 million from “other funds,” which were anticipated from the pot of oil spill money available under the Restore Act.
Restore Act money is administered by the Gulf Coast Recovery Council, which currently is chaired by Baldwin County Commission chairman Chris Elliott.
The project list included:
• Upgrading U.S. 31 from Highway 181 to just east of Highway 225, $25 million;
• Widening Highway 181 from County Road 64 to Highway 104, $18.7 million;
• Widening and upgrading Highway 180 east of the Foley Beach Express, $17.6 million;
• Widening and upgrading Highway 180 west of the Foley Beach Express, $21.7 million;
• Upgrading Highway 181 from Highway 104 to County Road 32, $43.6 million.
Calametti said that if the money comes through, bids could be let this summer on the U.S. 31 section and the northern section of Highway 181. Construction would take about a year and a half for each project.