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Infrastructure

Ivey: Revitalizing state’s infrastructure critical to moving forward

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao officially announced that Alabama has been selected for two Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grants totaling close to $132 million.

USDOT Secretary Elaine Chao and the USDO announced a wave of grant awards Thursday. Alabama received two allocated $6.87 million for an infrastructure project in Tuscaloosa and $125 million for the controversial I-10 bridge Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project in Mobile.

“Revitalizing our state’s infrastructure is critical to moving Alabama forward, and I am grateful to Secretary Chao and the U.S. Department of Transportation for helping our state take another step to bring these projects to fruition,” Ivey said. “It is vitally important for us to engage our partners at every level – federal, state and local – to ensure we are effectively using our dollars while making necessary enhancements to infrastructure in Alabama. I am proud to support the Trump Administration in their endeavor to not only make band-aid fixes but to make substantial, long-term improvements to infrastructure.”

“This significant federal investment is part of an overall program to repair and restore America’s bridges to enhance safety and economic growth,” Secretary Chao said.

Both projects will employ innovation through the intelligent transportation system. ITS aims to provide technology to coordinate services related to modes of transports, surveillance and traffic management. This innovative tool keeps roads safe during and after construction. ITS also is a valuable resource to assist with evacuations.

ALDOT says that the $6.87 million INFRA grant to the city of Tuscaloosa will go toward replacing the University Boulevard-U.S. 82 overpass structure. This is projected to cost $11.5 million. ALDOT plan to lengthen and widen the overpass to create greater efficiency and safety. The Alabama Department of Transportation will coordinate with the city of Tuscaloosa on the movement of the project.

“Grants like the DOT INFRA grant that have been awarded to the City of Tuscaloosa have allowed us to improve our roads and infrastructure in a timeline that we would not have been able to otherwise,” Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said. “The improvements that we are able to make through grants like this have allowed us to position our community to bring in the jobs and industries of the future.”

Maddox was the 2018 Democratic nominee for Governor.

ALDOT will direct the $125 million INFRA grant to the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway Project. ALDOT’s latest plan has an estimated price tag of $2.1 billion.

The grants were announced earlier this week in statements by U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, and Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose.

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“HUGE news for Mobile! The bridge is important to Mobile and the Gulf Coast because it will create jobs and improve the flow of commerce through the Port,” Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said. “This project is and should be a national priority. Since Day 1 in office, we’ve made multiple trips to D.C. seeking federal funds for this project. We are grateful to see the results of that effort, and appreciative of the support from Sen Shelby, Rep Byrne, Gov Ivey and the U.S. Department of Transportation for this game-changing project. Now, with this infusion of federal dollars, we encourage the Alabama Department of Transportation to continue to think creatively in identifying a funding solution that works for our citizens.”

The current Mobile River bridge proposal is to build the largest cable-stay bridge ever built in North America over the Mobile River. The Mobile River is also Alabama’s only shipping channel, so the latest design of the bridge has to be tall enough to allow large ocean-going ships to pass underneath the bridge.

The current ALDOT plan also calls for replacing all of the existing I-10 Bayway Bridges and for modifications to multiple interchanges across I-10. Ultimately, the new Bayway will provide eight lanes of travel across the Mobile Bay.

The new Mobile River Bridge will have more than 215 feet of vertical clearance to carry I-10 across the Mobile Channel, permitting all types of maritime traffic in the Port of Mobile. Federal Highway Administration regulations state that the Bayway needs to be raised above the 100-year storm surge level. Since the existing bridge cannot be raised, it must be replaced with a new structure. Given this change, the cost of the project increased from $850 million to the $2.1 billion total. The massive INFRA grant will pay for only a very small portion of the cost of the project.

ALDOT Director John Cooper has presented a plan where the people who use the bridge will pay for the bridge by paying $6 to cross the new bridge as well as to use the existing Wallace tunnels. Travel on I-10 is currently free. When residents complained that the costs would be exorbitant for folks who live on one side of the river and work on the side of the river, Cooper proposed charged a prepaid flat rate of $90 a month to area residents that would allow unlimited use of the expensive new bridge. That did not satisfy the critics.

Thirty-eight thousand people have joined a Facebook group urging the governor to postpone building the bridge to find another option other than to build it as a toll bridge.

Under Cooper’s plan ALDOT would award the contract to build the bridge to a construction conglomerate that would collect tolls on the bridge and tunnels for the next fifty years to recover their investment in the project and produce steady profits for their investors.

Under the current ALDOT plan, the Causeway, Bankhead Tunnel and Cochrane Africatown Bridge would a; continue to be free.

The City of Spanish Fort, in Baldwin County, has expressed concerns that toll avoidance would increase traffic in Spanish Fort at the east end of that route.

On July 15, the city-county passed a resolution rejecting the ALDOT plan to build the bridge as a toll road.

“I think we’ve all heard it from all of our constituents about their concerns about tolls, no tolls, whatever,” Mayor Mike McMillan said at the council meeting. “We need to let ALDOT know that we’re very concerned, not only about tolls, but the effect on our roads, the effect on our businesses, everything that goes with this causes issues for us.”

The entire Mobile County House delegation has presented a letter urging Gov. Ivey not to proceed with the bridge if it means charging tolls. Rep. Byrne (R-Montrose) and U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-Alabama) have also both expressed their opposition to the current ALDOT plan to charge tolls.

Cooper continues to insist that the bridge is necessary and that it can not be built except as a public, private partnership where the users of the bridge are charged for the privilege of crossing.

“While I am thrilled to welcome this important funding from USDOT, our work is not done yet,” Ivey said.
“This makes it ever clearer that we must continue working together to creatively find solutions for not only these two projects – but also for other needed improvements across the state.”

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Infrastructure

Alabama’s Black Belt lacks quality internet access, report finds

Twenty-two of 24 Black Belt counties are below the statewide average of 86 percent of the population who have access to high-speed internet, and two Black Belt Counties — Perry and Chocktaw — have no access at all. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

During an online video briefing Monday on a report about a lack of internet access in Alabama’s Black Belt, University of Alabama student Brad Glover warned reporters that he could get kicked off the briefing at any moment. 

That’s because he was talking during the video briefing by way of audio only, using his cell phone, as he does not have access to high-speed internet access at his Linden, Alabama, home in the Black Belt’s Marengo County. 

The COVID-19 pandemic that sent students home to study online left many in the Black Belt and other rural parts of Alabama in the lurch, without access to the high-speed internet enjoyed by so many other Americans, according to the latest report in the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center’s Black Belt 2020 series. 

The latest report, titled “Internet Access Disparities in Alabama & the Black Belt,” found that 22 of 24 Black Belt counties, as defined by the Education Policy Center, are below the statewide average of 86 percent of the population who have access to high-speed internet, and two Black Belt Counties — Perry and Chocktaw — have no access at all. 

“It is still a terrible struggle for me to connect to get the things done that are required,” said Glover, who interned with the Education Policy Center. 

Stephen Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center, said that in the 1930s, nine of ten rural homes lacked the electric service that urban American homes, by that point, had for 40 years. 

“The Rural Electrification Act was passed to address this abject market failure,” Katsinas said. “Today, as the COVID pandemic has shown, access to high-speed internet is as essential to rural Alabama as the REA was in the 1930s. Alabama must directly address the market failures that exist today to bring high-speech internet to every rural Alabamian, so that our rural workforce can access the lifelong learning skills they need, and our rural businesses can compete globally.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also spotlighted the need to expand the growing area of telemedicine. 

Dr. Eric Wallace, medical director of Telehealth at UAB, told reporters during the briefing Monday that patients are largely doing telehealth from their homes, and explained that disparities in access to high-speed internet present a problem for them. 

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, UAB has done approximately 230,000 telehealth visits, and 60 percent of those were done by video,” Wallace said. 

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“Forty percent are audio only, and why is audio only? It’s because we do not have broadband,” Wallace said. “So it’s not just broadband. It’s broadband. It’s tech literacy. Socioeconomics, to have a device in your home. It’s all of that.”

Wallace said that the coronavirus crisis has made clear that telemedicine is a “100 percent necessity” and that patient satisfaction studies make clear it’s not going anywhere. 

The reasons for disparities in access to high-speed internet are myriad, explained Noel Keeney, one of the authors of the report and a graduate research assistant at the Education Policy Center. 

Keeney noted a study by BroadbandNow that estimates there are 154 internet providers in Alabama, but there are 226,000 Alabamians living in counties without a single provider, and 632,000 in counties with just a single provider. 

Even for those with access to internet providers, Keeney said that just approximately 44.4 percent of Alabamians have internet access at a cost of $60 monthly or below. 

“If we really care about our rural areas, we need to make an investment, and it needs to cut off that cost at a very low rate,” Wallace said. 

Katsnias said there’s a growing consensus on the part of Alabama’s political leaders that access to high-speed internet is an important issue, noting that Gov. Kay Ivey in March 2018, signed into law the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, which has given internet access to nearly 100,000 Alabama students. 

“In March, Gov. Ivey awarded $9.5 million in broadband expansion grants, with a significant amount going to Black Belt communities,” the report reads. “This was followed by $5.1 million in additional grants in May.” 

“The State of Alabama also allocated $100 million in federal CARES Act-related dollars for “equipment and service for broadband, wireless hot spots, satellite, fixed wireless, DSL, and cellular-on-wheels to increase access for K-12 students undergoing distance learning,” the report continues. 

An additional $100 million in CARES Act funds were made available to facilitate virtual learning across Alabama’s K-12 schools, researchers wrote in the report, and another $72 million in federal aid went to the state’s colleges and universities. 

Katsinas said however those federal funds are spent, the state still needs a long term plan for how to address the disparities in access to high-speed internet. 

“We need a long term plan and we need to do what we can do immediately,” Katsinas said

Read more of the Education Policy Center’s reports in the “Black Belt 2020” series here.

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Environment

ADEM director weighs-in on coal ash pond closures

APR spoke with ADEM Director Lance LeFleur to understand the process and how the public could be assured that steps taken would lead to a safe and effective outcome.

Bill Britt

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ADEM Director Lance LeFleur

Over the next few weeks, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management will hold public hearings on the regulated closures of three coal combustion residuals storage sites, commonly referred to as coal ash ponds.

While ADEM receives high marks from federal regulators and businesses within Alabama, there is always a certain skepticism that surrounds environmental issues both on the left and the right side of the political spectrum.

Recently, APR spoke with ADEM Director Lance LeFleur to understand the process and how the public could be assured that steps taken would lead to a safe and effective outcome.

“I know that there’s skepticism about government,” LeFleur said. “And it’s healthy to have skepticism about government, state governments, local government, federal government. Skepticism is part of how we operate.” But LeFleur wants the public to know that ADEM’s first purpose is Alabamians’ health and safety.

“Our mission is to ensure for all Alabamians a safe, healthful and productive environment,” LeFleur said. “It’s a mission that ADEM and its nearly 600 employees take very seriously.”

LeFleur says while there are many competing sides to the issues that arise from coal ash disposal, ADEM must focus on “science and the laws.”

According to LeFleur, there are two primary issues that must be addressed when closing coal ash ponds: “avoid threats of spills into waterways or onto land, and preventing and cleaning up groundwater contamination from arsenic, mercury, lead and other hazardous elements that may leach from the coal ash.”

EPA does not classify coal residue as hazardous waste, but LeFleur says that all closures must ensure dangerous elements are not leaching down into the groundwater.

“I think there’s pretty much unanimous opinion that these coal ash ponds need to be closed; they need to be closed properly,” said LeFleur. “And we need to clean up the groundwater that’s in place.”

He says that the entire process will take decades, but the power companies have committed to safely closing the coal ash ponds. “We are dealing with power companies that are going to be around for a long time. And they, they are obligated to get the result right,” said LeFleur.

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Alabama currently has 14 regulated CCR units at eight sites throughout the state. They are comprised of 10 unlined surface impoundments, one lined landfill, one lined surface impoundment all closed, and two lined landfills still in operation.

Public hearings are a significant part of the permit granting process, according to LeFleur, and ADEM’s website allows any individual to review every document and comment about a coal ash pond’s closing.

“You can see all of the comments that we received,” LeFleur said. “Every issue raised during the comment period and written response to comments are available.” ADEM’s website also includes the closure plans as well as all correspondence between agency and utility companies.

According to ADEM, the purpose of these hearings is to allow the public, including nearby residents, environmental groups, and others, opportunities to weigh in on the proposed permits.

“This past summer, Alabama Power, TVA, and PowerSouth held informational meetings in the communities where their affected plants are located to explain their proposed groundwater cleanup plan —including the CCR unit closure component— and answer residents’ questions,” said LeFleur.

Closing a unit requires months of planning with ADEM engineers to make sure all procedures are followed correctly. Federal rules for closing CCRs have only been around since April 2015, when EPA released final measures for management and disposal of CCRs from electric utilities. In 2018, ADEM issued its state CCR rule, which closely tracks the federal regulations.

Under both Presidents Obama and Trump, the EPA has allowed for coal ash sites to be closed by two methods — closure in place and by removal.

Alabama’s utilities have chosen the cap in place method. Some environmental groups prefer removal. But estimates say that moving CCRs from Alabama Power’s Plant Barry would take around 30 years with trucks leaving the site every six minutes.

“Regardless of which method of closure is used, that process will take a couple of years to accomplish at these sites,” said LeFleur. “If it’s kept in place, the material has been de-watered then pushed together to create a smaller footprint, and then that will be covered with an impervious cover.”

The objective, according to ADEM, is to protect the groundwater and the environment from pollution.

Power providers and environmentalists seem to agree there isn’t a perfect solution. Public hearings are to ensure that community voices and those of environmentalists are heard.

“This entire process is designed to stop contamination to groundwater and future contamination to groundwater; those are the most important facts now,” said LeFleur. “There are always political issues, you know, at least two sides, and sometimes there’s three, four or five sides. We focus on science and the laws. That’s what we do.”

While ADEM has its critics, it receives a high rating from the EPA, and an annual survey by the Alabama Department of Commerce finds that it gets top marks from business and industry in the state.

ADEM’s first public hearing on coal ash permits will be held Tuesday, Oct. 20, for Alabama Power’s Miller Steam Plant in west Jefferson County. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the West Jefferson Town Hall. Other upcoming hearings are Thursday, Oct. 22, for Plant Greene County located in Greene County and Oct. 29 for Plant Gadsden in Etowah County.

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Infrastructure

USDA awards $3 million in grants for Alabama distance learning, telemedicine infrastructure

Alabama has been awarded six projects through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue this week announced that the USDA is investing $72 million in grants to help rural residents gain access to health care and educational opportunities.

These investments, the department says, will benefit more than 12 million rural residents across the country.

Perdue said Wednesday that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for expanded broadband as many employees are working from home and need reliable internet service.

Improved Internet services will also impact health care through telemedicine.

“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is right now as our nation manages the coronavirus emergency,” Perdue said. “Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children and remote business operations all require access to broadband. I am so proud of our rural communities who have been working day in and day out, just like they always do, producing the food and fiber America depends on.”

Alabama has been awarded six projects through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program.

“I look at investing in broadband as a critical priority, especially in today’s environment,” said USDA Rural Development State Director for Alabama Chris Beeker. “Having access to broadband is vital and no longer a luxury, but rather a fundamental need of rural Alabamians because it creates opportunities for the development of the economy, health care centers and educational institutions that wouldn’t otherwise be available.”

The USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program helps health care and education institutions buy the equipment and software necessary to deploy distance-learning and telemedicine services to rural residents.

The Clay County School District will use a $304,801 distance learning grant to establish a distance learning network connecting the Clay County Hospital and Clay County Board of Education.

Clay County Schools will utilize this project to bolster STEM programs through the addition of distance learning Advanced Placement and Dual Enrollment courses.

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Clay County Hospital will use this partnership to connect to teletherapy providers for mental health and drug counseling services, thereby increasing the culpability of school district, hospital and community.

This project will raise the educational outcomes for all students providing much necessary STEM course offerings in the project sites and stimulate growth in the project community by increasing practitioner involvement in all areas of STEM education and health services, including real-world connections to our current curricula and the opportunity to integrate tele-education in areas not currently served through our health services programs.

The Central North Alabama Health Services will use a $173,818 telemedicine grant to help deliver an interactive digital audio-visual communication platform across five health centers in northern Alabama.

Distance learning will be focused on a health and wellness curriculum including concentrations in nursing assistant and opiate substance treatment and counseling. Equipment will include interactive telehealth carts that feature video codec, display, audio system and camera installed on a rolling base that contains an external battery; some will contain peripheral examination equipment. A large conference monitor will also be placed at all sites for group conferencing.

The Dale County Board of Education will use a $716,114 distance learning grant to allow the Dale County Board of Education to launch a new Distance Learning project that will serve seven schools, a career and technical campus and an alternative school in rural Dale County.

Interactive video conferencing will be used to deliver STEM-focused, synchronous educational content to participating end users.

The Franklin Primary Health Center will use a $610,927 telemedicine grant to connect health center hubs located in Mobile, Alabama, with rural end-user medical and dental sites. The new connectivity will provide real-time audio and visual interactions with expert medical and behavioral specialists for the care of rural patients.

The services will include the treatment of substance abuse disorders. The project will deploy interactive video conferencing equipment required for medical consultations and provide training in the use of other project equipment.

This, along with telehealth carts with integrated codec, camera, microphone, monitors and peripheral patient examination devices, will assist specialists to provide real-time interactive telehealth visits.

The Macon County School District will use a $469,859 distance learning grant to assist the Macon County School District to purchase interactive video conferencing equipment. The equipment will provide distance learning services for high school and middle school students.

This project will enable the district to deliver new courses at Macon’s high schools and middle school by connecting and sharing teachers across schools. This will position the district to provide more electives, more core courses and more opportunities for advanced courses for middle school students.

The Madison County Board of Education will use a $775,058 distance learning grant to allow the Madison County School District to expand STEM education augmented curriculum and virtual field trip opportunities using distance learning technology. This expansion will help to enhance career and college readiness for every school within the district.

Twenty-eight sites will connect with each other to share curriculum and improve learning and engagement for their students. This project will help to provide equal access to educational opportunities throughout the schools served within Madison County.

To learn more about investment resources for rural areas, interested parties should contact their USDA Rural Development state office.

The USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements, business development, housing, community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care and high-speed internet access in rural areas.

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Economy

Report: Transitioning to electric vehicles could save Alabama millions in health costs

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama could save $431 million in public health costs per year by 2050, if the state shifted to an electric transportation sector between now and then, according to a new study by the American Lung Association.

Such a transition would reduce other health-related issues, said the organization, which used data on pollution from vehicles and from oil refineries to calculate its findings.

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

The transportation sector is one of the main contributors to air pollution and climate change, said William Barrett, the association’s director of advocacy for clean air and the study’s author.

“We have the technology to transition to cleaner cars, trucks and buses, and by taking that step we can prepare Alabama for the future while also seeing the health and economic benefits forecasted in ‘The Road to Clean Air,’” Barrett said. “Especially as our state faces the impacts of climate change, such as extreme storms, this is a powerful and practical opportunity to take action to improve our economy, our health and our future.”

Trading combustion-powered vehicles for electric ones could result in $11.3 billion in avoided health costs across southern states by mid-century, the report estimated, and prevent roughly 1,000 premature deaths.

Nationally, Americans stand to save $72 billion in health costs and $113 billion in avoided climate change impacts, the ALA said.

The path to that future depends on leaders factoring public health effects into decisions about transportation, Barrett said.

That involves steps like pursuing electric vehicle fleets when purchasing decisions are being made and supporting the creation of enough charging stations along highways, roads and at truck stops.

Investing in that infrastructure can drive wider economic benefits, Barrett said. He cited California’s increased manufacturing of electric vehicles.

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Tesla is the most well-known producer that has located there, but Barrett said that makers of trucks and buses have also chosen to locate their facilities in the state.

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