A two-man team protesting tolls to fund the Interstate 10 bridge and Bayway project and a state senator are both urging state officials to take a longer look at ways to raise money needed for construction.
Tax activists Kevin Spriggs and Lou Campomenosi have bought billboards and radio spots to denounce the state’s plan to use tolls. State Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, who sponsored a bill to eliminate a tax on contractors’ gross receipts to help defray construction costs, has also been adamant that tolls should be and can possibly be avoided.
Both are urging state officials, including Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) Director John Cooper, to have patience and see if other funding might be on the horizon.
“The federal transportation bill, while not likely to contain line-item funding for the bridge, is very likely to improve the funding options like the TIFIA [Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act] bond program and the INFRA [Infrastructure for Rebuilding America] grant program,” Spriggs said. “Pushing the project forward without further understanding of the transportation bill would be like Christmas shopping in October when you could wait for Black Friday in November.”
ALDOT announced its initial rate schedule for a possible toll on the bridge on July 17 in Mobile with cars paying $6, or $12 for a round trip, with a $90 monthly pass option for locals. Elliott says this plan places too big a burden on Mobile and Baldwin county residents and businesses.
Toll opposition is growing and a Facebook page started by State Auditor Jim Zeigler has grown to 31,000 members. This past week U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Birmingham, and Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Fairhope, both issued statements against tolls to fund the project. Byrne and Zeigler have called on Ivey to convene a meeting with the state’s Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority to discuss the project’s funding.
“My constituents are telling me, ‘let’s just take a step back, let’s make sure we’ve exhausted every opportunity we can,’” Elliott said. “Imagine if we went through with this tolling scheme; 50 years is the concept. Imagine if we get a federal infrastructure bill a few years down the road and we’ve already committed to building this project and tolling it for 50 years. That would be a horrible idea.”
Elliott is even willing to consider not doing the project at all.
“Or we say, ‘guys, we simply can’t afford this. The state of Alabama can’t afford this, residents in my district in Coastal Alabama simply can’t afford this and we’ll just live with what we’ve got,’” Elliott said. “We have to do that in our families and our businesses every day. We look at things and say, ‘I’d like to have that but that’s not something that I can afford and we’ll just have to live with what we’ve got.’”
Spriggs said he believes the currently proposed toll plan would essentially split the coastal economy in half.
“Tolls will impose an economic hardship and become an isolating barrier to both Mobile and Baldwin counties,” Spriggs said. “Our economies have grown for over 50 years without such a barrier. As earlier reported the annual cost to those who work and travel the Bayway in many cases will be greater than property tax, income tax or sales tax that many pay.”
So far as much as $500 million of the $2.1-billion project has been sought from federal money in the INFRA program with the U.S. Department of Transportation. But after being rejected due to the program’s financial limits, the state scaled the request down to $150 million, which was eventually awarded Monday.
“That’s the money coming from the feds and that’s 7 percent of the cost of the project,” Elliott said. “That’s it. The rest of it is coming from the state of Alabama, probably in the $400 million range and the balance of it is going to be borrowed under the current plan, and that’s going to be where we run into problems. We’ve got to pay all of that back. It’s not federal money, it’s not the old 80-20 split where 80 percent comes from the feds.”
Consequently, Elliott said it may be time to slow down before committing to a variety of financing packages that would be paid back on the back of commuters and businesses.
“Moving forward with this project at these rates is a nonstarter for me,” Elliott said. “Take a step back. The project is definitely needed, there’s no question about it. But there’s also no rush to get this done. We’ve been at this for decades. We will continue to be at it for quite some time. Let’s not marry ourselves to a 50-year plan that’s flawed from the beginning. Step back.”
At the July 17 press conference, Mobile River Bridge Project Director Edwin Perry the $150 million federal grant would help reduce the tolls, but he still believes a toll of some kind will be needed to complete the financing for the private–public partnership (P3) project.
Once the P3 team is selected, Spriggs said, the result would be a group that would have undue influence on state politics for years to come.
“We have been spending a few thousand dollars on local advertising to oppose the tolls and ALDOT has started their counter offensive to convince people we have to have tolls,” Spriggs said. “This battlefield changes once the P3 group is selected. They will be able to spend millions of dollars in Montgomery and Washington to make sure that they are successful and that all of the risks are transferred back to the taxpayers or toll payers. Our chance of federal and state participation to mitigate tolls will be squashed and our local political delegation will be totally helpless.”
There are several alternatives, Spriggs said, to doing this project in different and less expensive ways. Among those are breaking it up into several smaller projects and doing it in phases. Mainly he would like to see officials exercise more patience and caution before committing to the massive financial burden he feels the project creates.
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