Like all good coaches facing “fourth down and long” in his own territory, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, serving as chairman of the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), decided to punt.
At its regular meeting the morning of Aug. 21 inside the GM&O building, members of the MPO board followed Stimpson’s lead and voted to table all aspects of the bridge project — pulling them from a document that would have made it eligible to receive federal funding — until after Gov. Kay Ivey hosts a meeting of the state’s toll authority on Monday, Oct. 7.
Stimpson said he believed the delay was appropriate to give Ivey time to meet with members of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration on any alternative funding options that may exist.
“In discussions with the Governor’s office, the No. 1 thing they need from us, that is the MPO members, is more time to determine what the real options are,” Stimpson said. “She will only know those after visiting with officials in Washington that are engaged in this project.”
A motion made by Mobile City Councilman John Williams, and unanimously approved by the 15-member board, temporarily removed from the 2019-2023 Transportation Improvement Program document a total of four projects related to the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway plan.
Specifically, the projects are listed as an Interstate 10 interchange modification from Texas Street to the west tunnel exit; the Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway widening from the Broad Street exit to the Mobile County line; the Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project from the Broad Street exit to the county line; and another Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project from the Broad Street exit to the county line. All together the Mobile County projects are expected to total more than $1 billion.
This doesn’t include the projects making up the entire bridge and Bayway facility on the Baldwin County side. Those projects will be taken up separately by the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (ESMPO) on Wednesday, Sept. 25.
Although the move makes the bridge project currently ineligible for any federal money, include the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant it has already been awarded, along with a Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan, South Alabama Regional Planning Commission Transportation Director Kevin Harrison said the project could be added in October, after the MPO gathers in a specially called meeting.
Several MPO members congratulated Stimpson on the move, including Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl, who has come up with an alternate funding plan for the bridge.
“I commend you mayor,” Carl said. “I stayed on the phone with the Governor’s office for two days and got nothing.”
Supporters of the bridge project, like Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bill Sisson, implored the board to move forward with the project, citing congestion problems that will only get worse within the next 20 years.
“My request is very simple and it is to continue the process,” he said. “Approval of the TIP [Transportation Improvement Project] gets us to the next step.”
Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson, who is against tolls, told MPO members projections show year-long, summer-like traffic gridlock if the bridge is not built.
“We want the bridge and we don’t want the tolls,” she said. “Table it, delay it, whatever you need to do. I would like to see us rework it to the point where a toll is not even necessary.”
Saraland Mayor Dr. Howard Rubenstein said the portrayal of the issue as having only one of two solutions — either supporting the toll or supporting the bridge — is false.
“It’s not a simple binary situation,” he said. “I think there are other options to fix the problem. I agree the problem needs to be fixed.”
During the meeting, toll opponents and members of a large social media group, held signs and wore hats with a “no tolls” slogan on them. The group, led by State Auditor Jim Zeigler, claimed victory following the meeting.
“We are quite pleased with this one step to block the toll,” Zeigler told a gaggle of reporters. “There are other ways to pay for the I-10 bridge without a toll.”
The board’s colleagues on the ESMPO plan to take a slightly different approach to its impending vote on the project, Chairman and Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood said. Rather than table the vote for a future meeting, Haygood plans to introduce a resolution removing the projects related to the bridge until the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) can “provide a plan to deliver the project in a manner that eliminates making Interstate 10 a toll road ….”
The ESMPO will have a work session and policy board meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 28. The TIP vote will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 25.
Gov. Ivey told reporters at a recent event in Baldwin County the bridge is vital to future growth in the state and she hopes to hear “reasonable solutions” at the upcoming toll authority meeting.
“Everybody’s got a concern … ,” she said. “We need a solution.”
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