As in nature, politics abhors a vacuum. In Coastal Alabama, there is an enormous void in political leadership surrounding the proposed Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge.
Regardless of how one feels about the merits of the proposed toll to finance the bridge, the most powerful elected leaders in Alabama have all but abandoned this project.
Specifically, it includes Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, who boasts a (somewhat questionable) reputation as one of Alabama’s most impressive elected officials, and to a lesser extent, Gov. Kay Ivey.
Since the invention of the automobile, the people of Mobile and Baldwin counties have been grappling with the best way to get back and forth across the Mobile Bay. Over the last 100 years, ferries, the old vertical-lift truss Cochrane Bridge, the Causeway, the Bankhead Tunnel, the Wallace Tunnel and Bayway and the new Cochrane–Africatown Bridge have served as means of transit between the two bay shores.
Still, problems persist. Travelers are often saddled with delays when trying to make their way through the Wallace Tunnel. The other two routes, the Bankhead Tunnel and the Cochrane–Africatown Bridge are considerably out-of-the-way routes.
As of yet, the flying car has not been invented. Therefore, our esteemed transportation policymakers have determined that — given the deficiencies of the Wallace Tunnel — I-10 commuters need a bridge that rivals the Golden Gate Bridge in height and costs $2.1 billion. Notably, the price tag for this plan has more than doubled in the last decade.
The reasons range from the need to withstand hurricanes to the ability to allow for certain-sized shipping traffic to pass underneath. Despite efforts to rationalize the cost, no one has adequately explained why the price as ballooned.
Nonetheless, here we are with a costly bridge that will tentatively be tolled at $3 to $6 per way. The toll plan is about as popular BP along the Gulf Coast circa 2010.
Yes, we get it: The bulk of the traffic comes from other states passing from Mississippi to Florida and vice-versa. Why should Alabamians, many of whom view Mobile and Baldwin counties as a faraway province somewhere near Venezuela, foot the bill?
Do you know what would be great about now? A calming presence to be out in front of this project and to explain why it’s the right thing to do — and maybe provide a plan to reduce or eliminate the high toll price.
About a year ago, many of the talking heads in Alabama were fawning over Sen. Richard Shelby. He had assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bounty of federal money he would spread throughout Alabama would be unlike anything we had ever seen.
On this particular project, he has been missing in action in a big way. He has avoided any public discussion about the bridge and the problems with steering more federal money to the project. However, he has had time to weigh in on Alabama’s 2020 U.S. Senate race on multiple occasions.
Unlike Shelby, Ivey has at least acknowledged the discontent caused by the tolling aspect of the bridge. But it is the Alabama Department of Transportation and its director, John Cooper, who serves at her pleasure, that have been uncompromising on the bridge tolling.
Let’s just say the two have been reluctant to make any grand proclamations one way or another about the project.
Without them, there is a vacuum.
Enter State Auditor Jim Zeigler.
Who? That guy? Really? Yup.
Zeigler, thought of as something of a political gadfly by his detractors, was in early on the anti-toll movement; and, at age 71, has impressively used social media to spread awareness and organize an opposition to the toll.
During the summer of an off year of an election cycle, he has become the face of the anti-toll movement. Zeigler, with his signature American flag necktie, has raised his profile in adopting this righteous cause.
It is the kind of publicity candidates spend millions upon millions of dollars to generate.
What if there were a high-profile election around the corner? Might Zeigler use his anti-toll celebrity to catapult his candidacy for that office? Oh yeah, there is a U.S. Senate race (for which Zeigler claims to have formed an exploratory committee).
However, what might make a better fit for Zeigler is the election for Alabama’s first congressional district seat, which will need to be filled since its current occupant, Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Fairhope, is running for U.S. Senate.
Zeigler as a U.S. congressman? He has a shot at a runoff in a crowded field that already includes Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl, former State Sen. Bill Hightower and State Rep. Chris Pringle. Once you get to the runoff stage, it is a 50-50 jump ball.
The prospect is perhaps distasteful to some. However, these are the consequences of a leadership void.
There is a general distrust of state government. Aside from the removal of a sitting governor, State House Speaker and Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice in recent years, there was that gasoline tax increase earlier in the year. And now they want to tack on a $3 to $6 toll on a bridge that has purportedly been in the works for the last 20 years?
We are seeing what happens without leadership from the top unfolding before our eyes in South Alabama.
But what did you think would happen?
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