Governor Ivey, your people are hurting. They are crying out for help and starving for leadership and starving for the direction that only you can provide. Your lack of listening to Alabamians up until this point has allowed demagogues like State Auditor Jim Ziegler and Dean Young to step in and fill the void. The warning signs are there, and failure to listen to those who are casting votes of no confidence in ALDOT could turn you. This could have you go from Alabama’s favorite Governor Granny to even less liked than your predecessor.
Recently the results of the statewide poll conducted by the opponents to the $6 each way toll on the Mobile I-10 River Bridge project said that 79% of all Alabamians throughout the state are opposed to the toll. That is even higher than a similar poll that was conducted by the same group asking just coastal Alabamians. While I would personally question the integrity of any poll paid for by Dean Young, my personal ‘reading of the room’ makes me believe that those numbers are either accurate or pretty close to being correct. Things have gotten so heated and emotions are running so high, that local officials are ready to derail the entire project because the same constituents that are crying out for your leadership are telling them that the state is not listening.
You have asked that anybody that has any ideas on how to reduce or eliminate the tolls to come forward and present you with those ideas, so here are a few from me.
Financing The Project
If this is the project you have your heart set on, then there are ways to finance it without a toll. ALDOT Director John Cooper is correct that most of those ways require legislative action and are outside of the control of ALDOT, but that is where gubernatorial leadership is crucial. If you increased lodging taxes in Mobile and Baldwin counties only from 6% to 10%, it would generate an additional $25-$30 million dollars a year that could be used to finance this bridge. Couple these funds with the yearly payouts Alabama receives from the Gulf of Mexico Economic Security Act (GOMESA), which is an additional 20 to 25 million dollars a year, now you’re at 45 to 55 million dollars a year of funds available to pay for this project. If you took half of the gas tax money that just became available by redirecting it from the court system, y
Furthermore, the US House of Representatives Appropriations Committee just passed a report outlining their appropriations bill for the year, and in that bill, they included 1.5 billion dollars for a program called the National Highway Freight Program. This report now goes to the United States Senate Appropriations Committee. Our senior Senator, Richard Shelby, is the chairman of that committee. As Governor, you should be leading a statewide effort to encourage constituents to reach out to Senator Richard Shelby and ask him to include more money for the Mobile River Bridge project, which was only one of two projects that was expressly included in the report as examples of projects this money is designed to help.
You could even lead a charm offensive targeting Senator Shelby by inviting him to the governor’s mansion, or even the governor’s beach house, once a month for tea and cake. Being from Camden, I’m sure you make a mean caramel cake like my grandmother from Clarke County did. There, you and the Senator can discuss issues facing the state and how the Senator can help get the Federal Government involved for this project.
Downsizing The Scope
Probably the most effective way of eliminating the tolls on this project is downsizing the scope of the project. The fact of the matter is, coastal Alabama, and its greater economy, do not need this project right now. Nor can we afford this project right now. We do need a bridge, but smartly engineering a project that addresses the issues that causes the congestion down here can go a long way in solving our problems for decades to come.
While capacity is a growing concern on the interstate between Mobile and Baldwin county, It is only a minor factor and causing the congestion that we see regularly. The most significant factor that creates congestion on our interstate system down here is the ridiculously steep turns into and out of the I-10 Wallace tunnel. Just building a new three-lane River Bridge and redirecting the interstate traffic completely on to that bridge (basically cutting off the Wallace tunnel from the Interstate system) would solve that biggest issue. Also disconnecting the Wallace tunnel from the interstate system would allow for the redirecting of highway 90 traffic from the Bankhead tunnel to the Wallace tunnel.
You can also eliminate the second most significant factor causing congestion on the Bayway by installing lights and signals and traffic control arms on the onramps from the causeway to the Bayway that can restrict traffic during peak times from getting on the Bayway in the middle of the bay. This would eliminate the need for people in the travel lanes to slam on their brakes to let them in.
Making these alterations to the pathways across the bay can probably satisfy our congestion issues for about 30 to 40 years. It’s not that our highway system can’t handle 100,000 cars a day; it’s at our highway system cannot handle 100,000 vehicles a day efficiently. If we were to build more efficiencies into the system, we could handle that vehicle load better. It would also give us more time to figure out how exactly is the best way to build more capacity into the system, and more time to figure out a way to pay for it.
A Fresh Start For ALDOT
During your predecessor’s administration, your director of ALDOT yanked a road project from a Senator’s district in North Alabama when that legislature spoke out against Gov. Bentley. That is about the only tactic that your director hasn’t tried to employ during this current controversy over the I-10 Mobile River Bridge project. Frankly, coastal Alabamians are not entirely convinced he won’t try that soon. That is the level of trust that your people, the people you serve and lead, have in the director of your Department of Transportation.
During discussions during last year’s special session to deal with a gas tax increase, legislators from both sides of the aisle insisted upon a joint legislative committee to oversee and decide which projects would receive funding from the new gas tax revenue. That is how much trust your legislature has in The director of your DOT. Furthermore, Director John Cooper is already starting to take a confrontational and standoffish stance with legislators from the local delegations of coastal Alabama in regards to this project. In a meeting, last week with the delegations, discussions got heated, and threats to future projects were mentioned.
Furthermore, during the explanation process of this project, the DOT, under the leadership of Director Cooper, has played fast and loose with the numbers, estimates, and what actually is required and isn’t required. ALDOT has said that it is a federal requirement to raise the Bayway. Last week federal officials came out and said that was not the case. DOT officials have said that we need a 215-ft River Bridge to accommodate post Panamax cargo ships. The fact of the matter is no post Panamax cargo ships will even be able to go into the upper harbor of the Alabama State Docks, even if we built a 215-ft bridge because the depth of the river, combined with the height of the tunnels, will prevent them from doing so. Then they said the 215-ft height was for cruise ships. Practically speaking, Mobile will never be in contention for a cruise ship That will necessitate that height.
Even the numbers within the estimates have changed since the beginning of this whole process. During a media round table in July, the lead project manager for this project said that rebuilding and raising the Bayway was going to cost 1.3 billion dollars, during that legislative delegation meeting last week; they said that the additional expense for that was only $375 million. In the environmental impact study that was recently certified by the federal highway administration, your department of transportation estimated the cost of building The River Bridge at 773 million dollars, and they told legislators last week that the cost of building that bridge was actually 1.4 billion dollars. How can the legislature, the citizens, and even yourself believe the numbers and the information coming out of your Department of Transportation when they don’t even know the data themselves?
The Director of your Department of Transportation has even been quoted saying that it’s either going to be his way or no highway. Well considering all of the information I just laid out, a bold leader would probably say it’s about time for the director of the DOT to hit that highway and ask for his resignation.
So, it’s time to take a step back from this project and reevaluate everything related to it. That includes cost, financing, and design. There are ways of getting this project done in a timely and cost-effective manner that does not put an undue burden on the people that you lead. So it’s time to step up and provide that bold leadership for the state that everybody knows you’re capable of. Because the fact of the matter is, we don’t want people resenting the new Governor Kay Ivey River Bridge because they must pay $12 every day to get across it, do we?