The use of tolls by a private company to finance any new road, bridge or highway ranks probably among BP, Boeing and former University of Tennessee head football coach Phil Fulmer in popularity in the eyes of Coastal Alabamians.
We get it, and hopefully policymakers in Montgomery get it as well. The legislature has hiked fuel taxes, and it is time for government to make do with what it has.
That should rule out the possibility of a cost-prohibitive toll on commuters, particularly given the infrastructure required to overcome the geographic barriers that are a part of living on the coast.
However, we should not completely rule out tolling or public-private partnerships (P3) as at least an option for future infrastructure projects.
How much is your time worth? If you were driving down Airport Boulevard from West Mobile and needed to be somewhere in midtown, how much would you pay to be able to avoid the traffic lights from Snow Road all the way to the Loop?
Would you pay $3? How about $5? Would you go as high as $10?
The answer probably varies depending on the individual and the circumstances. But wouldn’t you like to have such an option? It would be there if you really wanted it or needed it.
A tolled Snow Road-to-the-Loop superhighway probably is not possible given the current layout of Mobile. However, there may be some places in Alabama that an option could be offered that never existed before.
The failure of the proposed $2.1 billion, Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project was not this at all. It took existing infrastructure, the Wallace Tunnel, and tolled it.
Incredibly, the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) and Gov. Kay Ivey’s administration operated on the assumption that only a handful of people in what they apparently saw as an isolated part of the state would care about any of it.
Then to add insult to proposed injustice, when questions were raised about the proposed toll bridge north of Evergreen, ALDOT and Ivey’s office tried to manipulate ignorance of Mobile and Baldwin County traffic patterns to promote their cause.
It did not work. Ivey pulled the plug after the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) intervened.
Ultimately, it was a gross error in public policy and public relations, and future administrations in Montgomery should view this as an example of how not to do something.
There was collateral damage. This highly unpopular effort took place in an off-election year when there was not much political news of sorts. Therefore, it dominated headlines around Alabama. Perhaps in other years, when there were local elections, the rest of the state might have not been as interested in an I-10 bridge.
Given that some were, however, this may have poisoned the well for future proposed tolled and public-private partnership projects.
There is polling to back up the claim that most people throughout the state beyond just southwestern Alabama saw the state’s handling of the toll bridge project as wrong.
Next time ALDOT tries to do something that might only be possible with tolls, constituents will cast a suspicious eye on the project.
“We saw what you guys tried to pull in Mobile. Now you want to do it here?”
It has led to pushes to make P3s and toll projects more difficult or unconstitutional. There is a real distrust of Montgomery because of the arrogance of ALDOT leadership and the governor’s office on this one.
Recently, the mayor of Decatur, Tab Bowling, said he would be open to the idea of a toll bridge that could be part of a northern bypass to alleviate traffic problems through the downtown portions of his city, located in North Alabama.
Essentially it would extend Interstate 565, a route that connects Decatur to Interstate 65 and nearby Huntsville. The only way it would likely be possible is if a P3 were established to build a new bridge to service the route over the Tennessee River.
Almost immediately after he made those remarks, the response came like clockwork from the usual detractors.
“See, we told you so! They want to toll all them roads and make somebody rich!”
If there is ever an opportunity for new infrastructure that could generate economic development or improve the quality of life for people all around Alabama, capitalizing is going to be that much more difficult because of the fumbling, condescension and public manipulation of the I-10 saga.
Good governance is not ignoring or dismissing the will of the public. There are always going to be those who will attempt to capitalize politically. That is not justification to be dismissive of concerns.
On the other side of it, however, this is not license to be the same way about a future proposal that incorporates tolling or private enterprise. Every project should be evaluated on its merit individually.
Unfortunately, for now, there will be a heightened level of distrust to overcome.
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