While controversy swirls over how much tolls will be when and if the $2 billion I-10 bridge gets built, questions still come to John Cooper about getting federal money to help fund the project.
“I have worked, and my people have worked, with the federal highway administration on this project since 1997,” Cooper told reporters on July 10. “If there were federal funds available, we would have taken advantage of those funds long, long ago. We are only pursuing the course we are pursuing because we were told there was no federal funding.”
Cooper, the director of the Alabama Department of Transportation spoke after a closed-door meeting in Spanish Fort with members of the legislature from both Baldwin and Mobile counties. In Cooper’s mind there’s no question about a toll, but it’s way too early to guess what that will be. Cooper repeatedly told reporters during a short session after the meeting that more information would be available in “the near future.”
“I do not believe the bridge can be built without a toll,” Cooper added.
And that’s what’s concerning Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne — concerns he expressed in a letter to Cooper and the U.S. Department of Transportation and on social media.
“I do feel we need, and I support a new I-10 bridge and widening of the Bayway but not under the ridiculous toll proposals put forth by the state,” Elliott said on social media on July 13. “I am not giving up. I am hopeful we can still salvage something beneficial for our community but not to be paid for on the back of Baldwin (and Mobile) County residents.”
State Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, said he had been busy with the 2019 legislative session and took the opportunity at the closed meeting to learn more about it.
“There are a lot of moving parts going on right now and it’s good to figure out what those parts are,” Simpson said.
Simpson said no specifics on tolls or anything else were discussed in the meeting.
“I can’t look you in the eye and tell you I know exactly what these tolls are going to be,” Simpson told reporters after the meeting. “The response from ALDOT was they heard the people’s concerns from these public meetings. They’ve heard the citizens’ complaints about what this would do to our economy locally, what this would do to people who live in Baldwin County and work in Mobile or people who live in Mobile and work in Baldwin County.”
Elliott said the project is still in the development phase and final selections for members of the public-private partnership haven’t been made and that limits what officials can say.
“That is the consortium of folks who are going to design, build, finance and operate the bridge and maintain the bridge under this P3 project,” Elliott said.
On July 11, Elliott was on the way to Montgomery for a bill signing on legislation he wrote on the state toll authority he says will save $100 million on the I-10 bridge project.
“What I did was update it so it excluded contractors’ gross receipts taxes which is about 5 percent, which means the total cost of this project will go down by $100 million,” Elliott said. “That’s $100 million which gets saved on the project which means the tolls can be less. It’s one incremental step in the right direction.”
After the meeting, Elliott said he felt like state officials were hearing citizens’ concerns about the tolls.
“We outlined some things that were concerns and I feel they are moving in that direction,” Elliott said.
Outside the meeting, lawmakers and state officials were greeted by protesters waving signs against having a toll on the bridge. State Auditor Jim Zeigler has organized a Facebook protest group and continues to be vocal in his opposition to the project being paid for by tolls.
Zeigler said he has a plan that could get some federal funds for the project from a $150 million INFRA grant, using the state’s Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act money from well leases in the Gulf and savings from U.S. Postal Service operations of about $15 billion.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, who is running for an Alabama U.S. Senate seat came out against tolls to pay for the project, but said his influence over it was limited. He encouraged residents at a July 8 town hall meeting in Magnolia Springs to call their legislators, the governor and ALDOT with their concerns.
Two long-time anti-tax activists in Baldwin County, Kevin Spriggs and Lou Campomenosi, have started an advertising campaign against the tolls with billboards and radio spots.
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