A nearly $100 million taxpayer-funded bridge project connecting the Foley Beach Express to Alabama’s beach destinations landed the state’s top transportation officials in court last week.
A lawsuit filed by privately owned Baldwin County Bridge Company and Baldwin County Revenue Commissioner Teddy J. Faust led to a court appearance by the Alabama Department of Transportation Director John Cooper and Regional Engineer Vincent Calametti, in which the men admitted the ALDOT has failed to prove that the bridge project is in the public interest.
The hearing was primarily concerned with addressing the state’s condemnation of private land surrounding the bridge site using its power of eminent domain.
The new bridge over Alabama’s Intracoastal Waterway has come under public fire in recent months, as a third bridge over the canal leading to the Gulf Coast has been called a waste of taxpayer money that will exacerbate traffic problems in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores.
The Alabama Political Reporter obtained a transcript of the proceeding, which reveals that the state had not conducted a viability study, has failed to hold public hearings and, most surprisingly, has given widely conflicting estimates of the cost of the bridge project.
Despite these concerns, Cooper admitted under oath that Gov. Kay Ivey’s administration green-lighted the project without a full review.
During testimony, both Cooper and Calametti agreed that ALDOT has provided wildly inconsistent estimates of the bridge’s cost ranging from $30 million to over $80 million. However, a letter signed by Cooper sets the price tag at $87 million.
Portions of their public testimony are as follows:
On page 56, Calametti agrees ALDOT cited a cost of $30 million to the public.
Q: “Does that refresh your recollection that Mr. Cooper put a thirty million dollar price tag on the bridge alone in November 2017?”
On page 68, Calametti agrees ALDOT cited a cost of $52 million to the Florida-Alabama Transportation Planning Organization (TPO).
Q: “If you turn the page, it’s a series of costs, do you see that? It refers to PD and E complete design under right-of-way, seven million dollars, in construction, forty-five million dollars, correct?”
Q: “So those are the costs that the Florida Alabama TPO obtained from ALDOT with respect to the costs of the new bridge as of February of 2018, correct?”
Calametti: “Yes, sir.”
Pages 64-65 show Calametti agrees that Director Cooper cited a cost of $87 million in a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Q: “This is a letter from Director Cooper of ALDOT to the Secretary of Transportation, U.S. Department of Transportation, dated October 9, 2017, correct?”
Q: “The eighty-seven million dollar figure is contributable to the new roadway and the new bridge that ALDOT is contemplating building, correct?”
On pages 152-153, Cooper admits he signed a letter citing a cost of $87 million without having read the letter.
Q: “I’m asking the question: First of all, isn’t it in fact true that in connection with your October 9, 2017, letter, which you saw earlier today because you were in the courtroom, that you included a map that indicated that it was an eighty-seven million dollar expenditure for the roadway and the bridge that you proposed to build, correct?”
Cooper: “There may very well have been a map included that said that. Whether I included it, may be open to some interpretation.”
Q: “It was attached to your letter, was it not, Mr. Cooper?”
Cooper: “Sir, that was a form letter. I send those for everybody who applies for a Tiger [grant] without exception.”
Q: “So you signed the letter – it’s your testimony on the stand today, that you signed that letter without reading it?”
Cooper: “It is.”
On page 154, Cooper admits that he was quoted as citing a cost of $30 million.
Q: “At the November 7th, 2017, meeting of the Orange Beach town hall, you indicated the cost for the bridge alone was thirty million dollars, right?”
Cooper: “I was quoted as saying that. I don’t remember it, but I assume I did.”
(later – page 155)
Q: “Okay. So let me ask the question then: Mr. Cooper, did you say that the bridge alone would cost thirty million dollars?”
Cooper: “I guess I did.”
On the broken process for planning and building the bridge: Cooper states definitively that the purpose for building a new bridge is to reduce traffic congestion in Gulf Shores, but both he and Calametti concede that the state did no formal traffic studies to conclude that a new bridge would solve this traffic problem.
Transcript page 120, Cooper states that the purpose of a new bridge is to relieve congestion.
Q: “Okay. And in every version of the project, what was the purpose generally?”
Cooper: “Well, the purpose always was some version of dealing with congestion, relieving the congestion in Gulf Shores on Alabama 59…”
Transcript pages 75-76, Calametti goes into more detail, stating that the specific problem ALDOT is attempting to address is travelers avoiding the BEX toll bridge into Orange Beach, causing traffic problems as they cross the Intracoastal on Highway 59 and double back into Orange Beach.
Q: “So Mr. Cooper is positing that vacationers go into Orange Beach or other travelers would take this circumvented detour in order to avoid that bridge, correct, the BEX bridge, right?”
Calametti: “Yes, sir.”
Q: “That was ALDOT’s justification for building a new bridge, correct?”
On transcript pages 76-78, Calametti admits that even though there are a number of studies available to ALDOT, the agency chose to do no traffic analysis to corroborate this theory.
Q: “And as you stated earlier, ALDOT has done no studies to actually prove that to be the case, to actually prove that vehicles are making that detour, correct?”
Calametti: “Other than to the review of the existing traffic numbers that we’ve seen, no additional studies that I’m aware of.”
Q: “Well, there are studies that you can do in order to determine the flow of traffic, right?”
Q: “And you didn’t do them, correct?”
Calametti: “Nothing other than the patterns that we looked at.”
Q: “ALDOT did not do traffic flow studies to ascertain where the vehicles actually went, correct?”
Q: “Isn’t it in fact true in connection with the Mobile deal – Mobile River Bay and Bay Way project, that ALDOT has done stated preference studies to determine whether and why vehicles go in certain directions?”
Calametti: “Are you referencing a traffic and revenue study?”
Q: “That’s one of them, yes.”
Q: “So you can do that type of study, correct?”
Q: “You can do GPS monitoring studies, correct?”
Q: “You can do Blue Tooth monitoring studies, correct?”
Q: “ALDOT did none of those studies to ascertain where the traffic flow actually went, correct?”
Q: “So even though it had many different opportunities and avenues and modeling and alternatives to determine whether or not it was in fact true, this detour was occurring, ALDOT did not do so before committing to build the new bridge, right?”
Transcript pages 161-162, Cooper simplified things when he admitted that he has not relied on traffic analysis, but conversations with people.
Q: “Which studies are you relying on other than the studies that we have looked at here today?”
Cooper: “I’m relying on conversations with numerous people who are students of Baldwin County. I do not have formal studies.”
Calametti also stated in court that ALDOT did not hold any public hearings regarding the new bridge until after Director Cooper had unilaterally decided to build it.
Transcript page 70, Calametti says ALDOT conducted no formal consultation with the public about the need or desire for a third bridge over the Intracoastal, only an announcement after the decision had been made.
Q: “There were no public hearings or open houses to discuss the new bridge that we’re currently here talking about today before it was approved by Mr. Cooper, correct?”
Calametti: “Not that I’m aware of.”
ALDOT’s failure to acquire traffic data or consult the local public casts doubts about the bridge alleviating traffic on Canal Road south of the Intracoastal Waterway, a highly congested area.
Transcript page 85, Calametti concedes that the bridge will not solve congestion issues on Canal Road.
Q: “It does not address it at all, that new bridge does not address at all the congestion issues with respect to Canal Road, Route 180?”
On the governor’s support:
After a day on the stand, Cooper appears to put the onus on the construction of the bridge on Gov. Kay Ivey’s staff, as he claims the governor’s chief of staff is supportive of the project.
Transcript pages 203-204, Cooper says in a meeting with the governor’s chief of staff, Steve Pelham, he is told to move forward with the new bridge.
Q: “Have you had discussions with the Governor’s office since (last year)?”
Cooper: “I have ongoing discussions with the Governor’s office. I think the last conversation on the project was with the chief of staff last week.”
Q: “Did you discuss this project with the chief of staff?”
Cooper: “I did.”
Q: “Did he approve it?”
Cooper: “He just told me to continue on.”
Q: “So it’s your testimony in Court today, that the Governor’s chief of staff is approving this bridge project?”
Cooper: “It’s my testimony in Court today that I talked with him about the project last week and he told me to continue.”
In what has become a highly controversial legal battle, the state is having trouble justifying an $87 million bridge across the Intercostal waterway.
Having not completed a traffic analysis and giving conflicting cost estimates has generated more questions about the project’s necessity. Despite Gov. Ivey’s promise of transparency, the administration’s failure to hold public hearings is seen in many quarters as a means to dismiss public concerns over the project’s viability.
Alabama Medicaid expansion advocates applaud Missouri voters
In Missouri on Tuesday, 53 percent of voters approved a plan to expand Medicaid to cover more than 23,000 low-income residents, according to the St. Louis-Post Dispatch.
A coalition of groups in Alabama urging the state to expand Medicaid applauded voters in Missouri for doing just that in their state on Tuesday.
“Last night, Missouri voters approved a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid. We’ve trounced Missouri on the football field, but they’ve beaten us at getting Medicaid expansion across the goal line,” said Jane Adams, campaign director of the Cover Alabama Coalition, a group of 90 separate entities calling for an expansion of the federal program in Alabama. “Alabama is now one of just 12 states that do not provide health care coverage for working-age adults with low incomes. We call on the Alabama Legislature and Governor Ivey to follow Missouri’s lead and expand Medicaid.”
In Missouri on Tuesday, 53 percent of voters approved a plan to expand Medicaid to cover more than 23,000 low-income residents, according to the St. Louis-Post Dispatch. The GOP-controlled state Legislature there had fought an expansion of the program, made possible by the Affordable Care ACt.
Approximately 64 percent of Alabamians polled said they support expanding Medicaid in Alabama, including 52 percent of Republicans asked, according to a recent Auburn University at Montgomery poll.
“But Alabama’s elected leaders are still leaving more than 300,000 Alabamians uninsured by refusing to expand health coverage,” Cover Alabama Coalition said in a press release. “Medicaid expansion would benefit working families, primarily adults between the ages of 19 and 64 whose income is at or below 138% of the federal poverty level. In 2020, that amounts to $17,608 for an individual and $36,156 for a household of four.”
“The COVID-19 crisis has created financial uncertainty for our economy, employers and workers,” said Jim Carnes, Alabama Arise policy director and a Cover Alabama steering committee member, in a statement. “Alabama needs economic stimulus, and Medicaid expansion would generate nearly $3 billion a year in new economic activity throughout the state.”
“Medicaid expansion would reduce health disparities and work toward racial equity in health outcomes for all Alabamians,” said Jada Shaffer, Alabama government relations director of the American Heart Association and a Cover Alabama steering committee member. “Communities of color experience higher infant mortality rates, lower life expectancy and higher rates of preventable and chronic conditions like heart disease. We urge lawmakers and Governor Ivey to include Medicaid expansion in their policy solutions to address racial and economic inequality.”
Missouri became the second state this month to decide to expand Medicaid. Voters in Oklahoma chose to do so on July 1, passing the measure by just more than 6,000 votes, according to NPR, which will provide coverage for approximately 200,000 more.
Alabama children’s advocates: Early end to Census count will hurt state’s most vulnerable
Stephen Woerner and the staff at his Montgomery nonprofit have spent more than two years preparing to ensure that marginalized people, especially children, get counted in the 2020 census, and all the planning and work blew up when the U.S. Census Bureau announced Monday that all counting efforts would end a month early.
Woerner, executive director of Voices for Alabama’s Children, an Alabama child-advocacy group, told APR on Wednesday that in the 2010 census, the largest undercounted population was birth to five-year-olds, and the second largest was six to 10-year-olds. The nonprofit received its first funding in July 2018, to work on ensuring a good count in this year’s census. The nonprofit puts out a detailed report on children in the state annually, called the Alabama Kids Count Data Book.
The COVID-19 pandemic had already interrupted the nonprofit’s plans, Woerner said, but added that the “real challenge of this announcement from D.C. is that they keep moving the finish line.”
The U.S. Census Bureau’s announcement Monday of a plan to stop counting a month earlier could cost Alabama one Congressional seat, and threatens to undercount population numbers which are used to determine the apportionment of federal funding. Minorities and immigrants are also among the most likely to be undercounted in any census. Advocates say the early end to the 2020 census will only further marginalize those communities.
Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham in a statement late Monday said that the bureau was to hire more staff and offer monetary incentives “to accelerate the completion of data collection and apportionment counts by our statutory deadline of December 31, 2020, as required by law and directed by the Secretary of Commerce.”
The 2020 census was delayed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, restarted in June and workers are set to stop all attempts to count on Sept. 30, a month ahead of the previous end date.
President Donald Trump in July issued an executive order to exclude undocumented immigrants from the 2020 census count, a move that is likely unconstitutional and unable to be carried out, opponents of the order have said. The decision this week to end the count early would likely lead to more of an undercount of minorities, which would favor Republicans in future elections and impact those communities’ access to critical federal funding, Democrats have said.
Woerner said he and staff recalculated after the coronavirus crisis hit, and began planning to shift their outreach efforts online, and then the announcement came Monday that they’d have a month less time to do so.
“I just got funding from Facebook doing another $20,000 worth of ad buys from August, September and October,” Woerner said. “And so now I’m having to cut a month out of that. It is incredibly problematic for everybody in Alabama, because it keeps moving the finish line.”
Woerner said the ambiguity and the fog makes trying to reach those historically-undercounted communities “so incredibly difficult. These are already communities that are really hard to get to.”
Woerner said whether it’s Hispanic or Black communities that may not trust the federal government, or parents of young children who don’t think their voice matters, those are communities that are hard to reach in a normal year.
The Montgomery nonprofit has worked closely with the Census Bureau for the last two years, and the news Monday was also a blow to the Bureau workers and their ability to accomplish their own goals, Woerner said.
“It just means that with the ambiguity and the fog, we’re gonna have a worst count. We’re gonna have a less accurate count,” Woerner said. “That’s going to impact Alabama because we’re going to lose a Congressional seat. We’re also gonna lose out in the dollars that we’re dependent on for so many issues.”
Gov. Kay Ivey in a statement to APR on Wednesday again urged everyone in Alabama to fill out the census form.
“Alabama, if you still need to fill out your 2020 Census, do not put it off any longer. The absolute last day to be counted has been moved up to the end of September, but despite what our national deadline is, today is the day to complete your 2020 Census in Alabama,” Ivey said in the statement. “I filled out my own census on my2020census.gov and would encourage you to do the same. You can also easily do it by phone by dialing 844-330-2020. Let’s not wait any longer Alabama. The stakes are high for us, and we have much more work to be done.”
For more information, visit census.alabama.gov.
Attorneys ask court to intervene over numerous Alabama inmate suicides
Charles Braggs died by suicide in an Alabama prison after being kept in solitary confinement for more than two years. His suicide and a rash of others in Alabama prisons prompted attorneys for the plaintiffs in a case against the Alabama Department of Corrections to ask the court Wednesday to intervene.
Braggs, 28, died at St. Clair Correctional Facility on July 17 after having been housed in segregation for 796 days, according to the court filing by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and attorneys with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz.
“Mr. Braggs was the seventh person — and the sixth Black person — to die by suicide in ADOC custody since this Court issued its Remedial Opinion and Judgment on Immediate Relief for Suicide Prevention (the ‘Suicide Prevention Opinion’) in May 2019, in which the Court found ‘substantial and pervasive deficiencies’ in ADOC’s suicide prevention program,” attorneys wrote to the court.
Bragg’s suicide was the fifth in Alabama prisons in the last four months, the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in the fling, in which they call for “swift implementation and robust monitoring of the Parties’ various remedial agreements” and for the state to address the use of segregation and “segregation-like” cells, which disproportionately hold Black people.
Alabama prisons kept 1,001 people locked alone in segregation on July 28, according to the court filing.
“Of those 1,001, ADOC’s public database lists 705 people as Black and 273 white—that is, approximately 70 percent of the people in segregation are Black,” the filing states, going on to note that Black people make up approximately 52 percent of Alabama’s inmate population and about 27 percent of the population of the state.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in his May 4, 2019 opinion wrote that ADOC argues the department cannot prevent all suicides in prisons.
“It is true that, as in the free world, not all suicides can be prevented. But this reality in no way excuses ADOC’s substantial and pervasive suicide-prevention inadequacies. Unless and until ADOC lives up to its Eighth Amendment obligations, avoidable tragedies will continue,” the judge wrote.
That 2019 opinion came after the plaintiffs’ attorneys asked the court for immediate suicide-prevention relief following 15 inmate suicides over 15 months. Thompson agreed in his opinion to make permanent most of the provisions of a previous agreement between the plaintiffs and ADOC.
Thompson’s separate judgment, filed the same day as his opinion, establishes minimum guidelines for how the state assesses and treats incarcerated people who may be at risk of suicide.
Among the prison suicides noted in the court filing was Marco Tolbert, 32, who was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and prescribed anti-psychotic and anti-depressant medication, but on June 20, 2019, three months before his death, his mental health code — used by ADOC to determine care — was reduced, some of his medication was discontinued and he was moved out of Donaldson prison’s residential treatment unit and into the general population and “was not provided any follow-up mental health care,” according to the filing.
He died by suicide on Sept. 26, 2019, according to court records.
Marquell Underwood, 22, was placed into segregation at Easterling Correctional Facility on Feb. 23 and died by suicide that same day, according to court records.
“Mr. Underwood previously reported a history of Bipolar Disorder, was referred to mental health nine times in relation to segregation placements, self-referred once to mental health, and was placed on acute suicide watch twice during the six months before his death,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote to the court. “Despite all of this, he was never placed on the mental health caseload, never received a psychiatric evaluation, and never received any mental health treatment.”
Laramie Avery, 32, died by suicide in his segregation cell at Bullock prison on April 14 and was placed in segregation for “disciplinary” reasons after being stabbed at least eight times in the head and chest, according to the filing.
“Mr. Avery was referred for a mental health evaluation three days before his suicide, but there is no evidence that the evaluation ever occurred. He was not on the mental health caseload,” the court filing states.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys also note the death of Darnell McMillian on June 22 at Donaldson prison. McMillian died while on suicide watch and after having been placed into a cell with another inmate also on suicide watch.
“After an altercation between Mr. McMillian and his cellmate, correctional officers allegedly deployed pepper spray, which caused Mr. McMillian to become unconscious and may have led to his death. It is unclear what policies ADOC has instituted, if any, to ensure the safety of those on suicide watch who are double-celled,” attorneys wrote to the court.
An ADOC worker told APR in July that correctional officers used an excessive amount of pepper spray in the cell where McMillian and another inmate were housed. The cause of his death is pending an autopsy.
Jones campaign director blasts Tuberville for saying $600 “too much” for out-of-work Alabamians
The communications director for U.S. Sen. Doug Jones’s re-election campaign on Wednesday called out Tommy Tuberville for saying that $600 in emergency unemployment aid was too much for Alabamians.
“Tommy Tuberville once again proves he’s out of touch with Alabama. When he ‘resigned’ from his job as a football coach he took a $5.1 million payout for himself. To this day, he receives $800 a week in State Retirement funds for a coaching job he ‘quit’ in 2008,” said Owen Kilmer, communications Director for Jones’s Senate campaign, in a statement Wednesday.
“But he says $600 in emergency benefits is ‘way too much’ for people in Alabama who lost their jobs in this crisis through no fault of their own. Tuberville says $600 is ‘way too much’ to help people put food on the table and pay utilities,” Kilmer continued. “No wonder, when asked about how to handle this crisis, he said ‘I wouldn’t have a clue.’ It’s true. He doesn’t.”
Tuberville, the Republican Senate nominee, is trying to unseat Jones in the November general election. Jones has called the former Auburn football coach and first-time political candidate an “unprepared hyper-partisan.”