It’s not just you, Coastal Alabama. But the Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge toll controversy has given others around the state an opportunity to voice their frustrations with the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT).
For several years, long before the proposed tolling was the hot-button issue du jour, legislators, county commissioners and mayors would privately complain about ALDOT. However, those overtures were kept private out of fear the bureaucracy within the agency would have a punitive response.
“Oh, you don’t think we’re doing a good job? Remember that intersection you needed to be repaired and widened? It just got pushed back seven years. How do you feel about ALDOT now?”
One of the most glaring examples came in 2015 in Madison County. Then-State Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, threatened to stand in between then-Gov. Robert Bentley and a tax increase. He made his intentions known on a billboard alongside U.S. Route 72 in Madison, a major thoroughfare in that area.
Days later, ALDOT Director John Cooper not only responded by halting two road projects in Holtzclaw’s district, but he also did so publicly, demonstrating he had no qualms with acting in such a way.
It is certainly not the first or last time one of Alabama’s 67 counties or 460 municipalities was strong-armed by Cooper or the ALDOT bureaucracy for political reasons.
Years have passed since the Holtzclaw episode, and during that time, elected officials have for the most part kept their complaints about ALDOT on the down-low.
There was a minor dust-up between Gov. Kay Ivey and Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle during the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary about a widening project in Battle’s area (which was green-lit two months ago). Other than that, ALDOT’s unspoken threats of retribution have kept the natives from becoming too restless.
That has changed with the Mobile River Bridge episode. The heightened scrutiny on the agency for its “our way or else” approach on this particular project has led elected officials around the state to start to question the Alabama Department of Transportation under the leadership of Director Cooper.
The tipping point for the state’s political class came last week at an informational session hosted by ALDOT for legislators from Mobile County. During the meeting, Cooper made impromptu remarks in which he was confrontational with the delegation, and those remarks were caught on video for the entire state to view.
Cooper, an unelected bureaucrat and a holdover from the Bentley administration, did not even bother to camouflage his disgust in having to deal with local politicians. The result was the ALDOT director having a run-in with Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne.
Cooper came off as condescending and disrespectful toward Simpson, who was elected by the public. That did not go unnoticed by Simpson’s colleagues in the Alabama legislature.
The consensus from the handful of members in attendance at last week’s Alabama Republican Party meeting in Auburn: It was a bad idea for Cooper to show such a high level of disdain for our elected colleague.
Other members of the legislature have used it as an opportunity to air grievances about the agency. Last week during a radio interview, State Senator Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, who represents a district some 200 miles from the proposed Mobile Bay crossing, applauded local efforts regarding the proposed toll.
Whatley called out Cooper for having seemingly out-of-whack priorities that have impacted public safety in his district. The Lee County Republican said ALDOT was spending a whopping $24 million on a rest area bathroom renovation on Interstate 85.
“I’m glad that people in Mobile and Baldwin [counties] are bringing these issues to the forefront, whether they’re for or against the toll, and I’m hoping that people here and the governor will also look at East Alabama and what we’ve got going on over here and put the money where it is most needed to save lives, not where people can use the restroom,” Whatley said.
Others have questioned just exactly what role Gov. Kay Ivey is really playing in the push for this project. Birmingham radio talker Leland Whaley reacted to an appearance the governor made on his radio station to discuss the issue and described her as “over her head in this job.”
“She sounded feeble … and I’m not referring to her age – her command of the facts, it was almost like she was reading talking points,” Whaley, who was once a communications staffer for former Gov. Bob Riley, said.
If this continues to be a trend, and Ivey takes hits for her transportation director and for being grossly uninformed about a massive project her administration is undertaking, it might be time for the governor to rethink how the agency is administered – especially as Alabamians are about to start paying more at the gas pump in taxes for roads and bridges.
John Cooper and other career officials in the Montgomery bureaucracy may think politics is beneath them and interferes with the duties of their agencies. Such an attitude, however, is a bad look if it is put on display for the public.
Isn’t it about time for a shakeup at ALDOT to institute some reforms before it becomes Alabama’s “deep state”?
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