If anyone was in favor of Gov. Kay Ivey’s and the Alabama Department of Transportation’s plan to fund any part of the proposed Mobile River Bridge and Bayway Project’s $2.1 billion price tag with tolls, they didn’t step forward and express it at the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting in Fairhope this afternoon.
Instead, the MPO’s policy board, after hearing nearly three hours of public comments from more than 30 speakers either partially or totally opposed to the project, voted to remove it from their 2020-2023 Transportation Improvement Plan. Afterward, the governor acknowledged “this project is dead.”
Claiming it was a “failure to prioritize” the project, Ivey issued a statement admitting, “with the action taken today, there is no pathway forward …” She also canceled the October meeting of the state Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority, scheduled to consider – or at least provide the illusion of considering – funding alternatives.
But as the 22-year-long saga to eliminate Interstate 10’s bottleneck at the George Wallace Tunnel came closer to reality in the past two years, Ivey and ALDOT have been lock-step in promoting the P3 alternative. As proposed, the public-private partnership would have awarded a 55-year contract to an equity firm to design, build and maintain the bridge in exchange for tolls beginning at $6 per car, with other controls and concessions allowing the firm to collect as much as a 500 percent return on its investment.
Coupled with a groundswell of opposition from citizens in coastal Alabama and beyond, eight of the nine ESMPO commissioners – save for the lone ALDOT representative – expressed their displeasure with the project Wednesday before ultimately voting to stick a fork in it.
Still, policy board chairman Dane Haygood, the mayor of Daphne, said killing the project was not his intention.
“I’m trying to represent all of our citizens and all of our leaders and we have no choice but to fight to protect ourselves from tolls that are not imposed anywhere else in the state,” he explained before casting his vote. “If anything, I’m trying to resuscitate something that is already dead.”
Earlier in the day, both Haygood and Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, the chairman of Mobile’s MPO, received a letter from Ivey encouraging them to keep the project on their respective TIPs. But ESMPO policy board member Jack Burrell pointed out, the letter also included a “veiled threat.” In essence, Ivey insinuated the state would not support local transportation projects if local officials did not support regional transportation projects, including her toll proposal.
But among the speakers or attendees Wednesday was Baldwin County’s local legislative delegation — two state senators, three state representatives and even two former state senators — who swore if there were political ramifications as a result of ESMPO’s actions, they would weather the storm together.
“All of us are opposed to this toll,” said State Rep. Chris Pringle, who is also running a campaign for Bradley Byrne’s congressional seat. “[Baldwin and Mobile counties] are tied together, economically, socially, politically, and this toll will tear our community apart. I work with subcontractors all day every day. Every person on my construction sites have told me we cannot afford this. If you want to get [the state’s] attention, pull this out, it will give your elected representatives in Montgomery a bargaining chip too. If (ALDOT Director John) Cooper was not interested in meeting with us before, he’ll be interested now.”
A lack of responsiveness and tone-deaf attitude from Montgomery were among the reasons people expressed dismay with the project. Its potential impacts to business, the medical community, tourism, the working class and commuting students were among the most repeated concerns, along with the fear of foreign investment into and control over of local infrastructure, at a time when a new state gas tax is about to take affect and two communities on the Eastern Shore are facing additional school tax referendums.
This week, the governor’s office also mishandled communication about a $900 million plan to rebuild Alabama’s prison system, a plan that also includes private investment.
Foley resident Chris Allen said the Ivey administration “has proven to be the most untrustworthy of our lifetime.”
“What Alabama will be known for is having our infrastructure and people sold out,” he said. “Cooper’s appointment strips us of protections and a system of checks and balances … This project has been 22 years in planning but nobody ever planned on budgeting money and now it’s an emergency. A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.”
The Mobile MPO voted to table its decision on the project until its meeting next month, but the project could not have moved forward without the support of both organizations.
“When I was elected I was told there is no other way to build without a toll,” said first-term Baldwin County Commissioner Billie Jo Underwood, who has a seat on the policy board. “I can’t accept that. I don’t accept there is no other way to do something. Unfortunately as it stands, it is no toll and no bridge. There may be consequences to this but we are willing to stand up to those consequences.”
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