Even after what many have considered to be a good trip to Washington D.C. last month to lobby for a new bridge over Mobile River, Alabama Department of Transportation Director John Cooper warned the nearly $900 million project would still be years away.
This morning, he reminded local politicians and stakeholders at a debriefing of the trip Wednesday morning of the “bureaucratic process” required.
“It will be followed and you can’t shortcut it,” he said.
For starters, he said, the Environmental Impact Study would have to be signed before anything else could take place. ALDOT is committed to funding the plans for the project, but those are two to three years out. The plans would then have to be approved, the state would have to acquire the proper rights-of-way and utilities would have to be moved before work could begin.
“Even if we had funding now, it would take a while,” Cooper said. “It’s important to remember this is a marathon and not a sprint.”
He said he was in awe of the delegation’s commitment and told them to keep it up.
“Don’t lose hope,” Cooper said. “We will build this bridge.”
Funding was one of the topics of discussion for the 16 area mayors and county commissioners and members of the Build the Bridge Coalition that attended the Washington trip. One of the outcomes of the trip was engagement from a federal department of Innovative Program Delivery that discussed funding options with the delegation, Attorney Britton Bonner said.
They discussed options for funding that included tolling and public private partnerships. He said the department was committed to come down to Mobile and talk through options that would help get the project funded. The program is only open to states, Bonner said.
“This program is what they’re using to fund major projects throughout the country,” he said. “These are projects of national and regional significance.”
Alabama had originally missed the deadline to get a project on the list for the program, but U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne worked to get the bridge added, Bonner said.
On the issue of tolls, Baldwin County Commissioners Tucker Dorsey and Chris Elliott agreed that they needed to be looked at as a viable option.
“The only way the project moves forward is with a toll option,” Elliott said.
Cooper added that while many people make a distinction between toll roads and free roads the distinction doesn’t really exist.
“There are no free roads,” he said. “There are toll roads and roads paid for by other means.”
The main funding stream for non-toll roads is the gas tax, which has taken a hit in the last 20 or so years because of an increase in fuel efficiency.
“I’d like to remind all of you that you’re talking about a big money project,” he said. “When you got in your cars and came here this morning you paid less to ride the roads than 20 years ago.”
On the issue of who would be most likely to pay the toll, the group was shown numbers from a cell phone study taken on the Bayway July 2. The study showed that more than half of the drivers on the roadway were from either Baldwin or Mobile counties. Floridians made up the third highest total at nearly 10 percent. Travelers from Louisiana made up 7 percent, Texas made up 5 percent and Georgia made up 3 percent.
During the D.C. trip delegates from the area met with White House staff, as well as senators and congressmen from the area. Those included Sens. Richard Shelby, Jeff Sessions, of Alabama; U.S. Reps. Ted Yoho and Steve Southerland, of Florida; Steven Palazzo, of Mississippi and House Majority Whip Steven Scalise, Bonner said.
Scalise, who has a home in Orange Beach, was really interested in the project, Bonner said, and shared a story about being stuck in Mobile in traffic with his young children in the vehicle.