For the second straight year, the city was denied a $13.6 million federal grant for making improvements to Broad Street. When the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced its annual award of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, Mobile was excluded from the list.
But city spokesman George Talbot said the grant’s denial won’t kill the “Bring Back Broad” initiative, which seeks to add mobility to one of downtown’s busiest thoroughfares.
“We still say we feel very good about the project,” Talbot said. “We’re still looking at options. If we can’t get the money through TIGER, we’ll get it somewhere else.”
Mayor Sandy Stimpson said the city would soon receive feedback from the DOT on the application and could use it to reapply.
Birmingham was the only city in Alabama to receive TIGER money, one of three beneficiaries in the South. There, the city received $20 million to develop a new, 15-mile rapid transit bus line to connect specifically low-income residents to employment centers, educational opportunities and community services.
The announcement sets back Mobile’s project to reduce vehicular lanes on Broad Street to add bike and pedestrian infrastructure at least a year, and constitutes one of the few blemishes the City Council and administration officials cited in an otherwise successful two-year run of Stimpson’s first term.
Stimpson explained that alternative funding sources are important because of his hesitance to borrow money. Two years in, he boasts of not adding debt.
“We have tightened up the operating budget to make sure we didn’t need to borrow money,” he said, noting a broader effort to square up the city’s finances. “The underlying accomplishment of getting the fiscal house in order was a hallmark of this administration. Without that, we can’t get anything else accomplished.”
Meanwhile, he admitted keeping the city in good financial standing is an ongoing process, requiring department heads to stay within their budgets on a monthly basis. The collaborative work by the mayor and council to keep the city operating within its means has impressed Councilman Joel Daves, a former banker.
Specifically, Daves cited ending the practice of transfers from the capital budget into the operating budget, which helped the city turn a $4.5 million deficit in 2013 into a $27 million surplus this year.
“We now have a fully funded reserve and can spend $21 million this year in capital improvements,” he said.
The council’s three-year extension of a roughly 15 percent sales tax also helped. Although Stimpson had asked for a one-year extension, his veto was ultimately overridden during budget discussions last year.
Daves said the capital fund helps the city plan for the future by chipping away at a $250 million backlog of infrastructure repairs.
“I think what you’ve seen in this council is a willingness to move forward,” he said. “We’ve made some tough decisions … That’s what the people hired us to do.”
In addition to the fiscal discipline, Stimpson and the council have benefited from big economic developments in 2015, including the return of Carnival Cruise Lines to the Alabama Cruise Terminal and the opening of Airbus’ first U.S. assembly line and supporting businesses.
While Stimpson gives a lot of credit for the Airbus opening to Sam Jones’ administration, he said his own administration has since expedited some permitting processes. He does, however, take credit for bringing the cruise industry back to town, noting that in doing so, he fulfilled a campaign promise.
In a separate development prioritized by the Stimpson administration in collaboration with U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, Congress passed a six-year highway bill last week that could ultimately benefit the proposed $85 million Interstate 10 bridge project, promising to relieve congestion in both the Bankhead and Wallace tunnels. Stimpson said he was recently reassured by Gov. Robert Bentley of the governor’s commitment to complete the bridge’s design before he leaves office.
During his first year in office, Stimpson made changes to Planning Commission appointments.
Meanwhile, the new Planning Commission has presided over several contentious debates this year, but Stimpson said that’s not unusual. One involves regulations for petroleum storage tanks near the Mobile River and another continues regarding entertainment districts downtown. Stimpson said one of the reasons for those debates has been the city’s lack of a detailed long-range plan.
“There has been little or no effort in the last 30 to 40 years to go through all our ordinances to make it simple and make sure there are no discrepancies,” he said, assuring members of the Planning Commission are “very qualified” and are doing an “excellent job.”
Stimpson, Daves, Council President Gina Gregory and Councilman Levon Manzie all said the relationship between the mayor and council is improving.
“The mayor and council have a very good working relationship,” Gregory wrote in an email. “We are communicating, we have successfully tackled some difficult issues, and we are all onboard with our capital improvement plans.”
Gregory also praised the council.
“We are a great team, we respect each other, and we consistently work to reach consensus,” she wrote.
Meanwhile, Manzie believes the council has “done a tremendous job representing citizens and providing services,” calling it “transformative.”
“We’ve bonded as a group,” he said. “We all want to see us move the city forward.”