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Byrne says GOMESA funding could be used for bridge, questions the latest design

On Monday, the Alabama Department of Transportation launched its own “Mythbusters” campaign to counter the efforts of the tens of thousands of community activists who are opposing the ALDOT plan to fund the bridge through a private, public partnership that would allow the conglomerate to toll interstate 10 bridge users for the next 50 years.

Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, opposes tolling the new bridge. Byrne released a statement critical of the information shared by ALDOT’s Mythbusters.

“I take issue with ALDOT’s comments regarding federal GOMESA money,” Byrne said. “GOMESA is the money Alabama receives for our offshore oil and gas leases in the Gulf. The law states that the money must be spent in either Mobile or Baldwin counties. First, an outlined acceptable use of the money is for a hurricane evacuation route. I-10 is definitely that, so I find it odd ALDOT left that off. Second, my suggestion was that ALDOT bond the GOMESA money to increase its worth. That way more money would be available to help offset the cost of the bridge.”

The latest ALDOT proposals calls for building a new bridge and replacing the I-10 bayway with a taller structure. ALDOT estimates the costs of this project at $2.1 billion up from ALDOT’s previous $800 million proposal.

“Finally, this document fails to even discuss how the costs ballooned from around $800 million to over $2 billion,” Byrne said. “If ALDOT would scale the project back down, we could avoid this toll.”

Forty-two thousand citizens agree with Byrne and have joined a Facebook group opposing tolling the new Mobile River bridge and the existing Wallace Tunnels.

Many of the toll opponents have accused Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey for being behind the toll proposal.

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The governor’s chief of staff, former Congressman Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, said the governor is not advocating for a toll bridge.

“The governor isn’t the one advocating for a toll bridge; she is simply looking at all options to help relieve the congestion along the Bayway that is already bad and going to get worse,” Bonner said in a note to a concerned citizen. “While the $125 million federal grant was a good first step, the truth is we’re going to need a lot more help from the Federal government as this is a Federal Interstate highway, as you well know. I’ll be sure to share your concerns with Gov. Ivey.”

“Governor Ivey knows that it is vital we move the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project forward for the reasons of commerce, efficiency and safety, said Gov. Ivey’s Press Secretary Gina Maiola. “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.

Maiola continued, “The 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. Some are suggesting GOMESA funds — which are intended for land acquisitions, research and recreation access improvements projects — be used for this infrastructure project. While it is questionable that GOMESA funds can be used in this manner, it is important to realize that even if it was determined they could be used, it’s $24 million of a $2 billion project.”

“The bridge is important to Mobile and the Gulf Coast because it will create jobs and improve the flow of commerce through the Port,” said Mayor Sandy Stimpson on social media. “This project is and should be a national priority. Since Day 1 in office we’ve made multiple trips to DC 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 US 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.”

Under the plan, the Causeway, Bankhead Tunnel and Cochrane Africatown Bridge would continue to be free. Residents of Spanish Fort have expressed concerns that toll avoidance will lead to heavier traffic through Spanish Fort. The city council has passed a resolution urging that the plan to toll I-10 not be implemented.

Zeigler is urging that the project not be tolled and was critical of the Mythbusters campaign.

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“ALDOT did not address the problem of leasing out a portion of an interstate that belongs to the people,” Zeigler said on social media. “ALDOT did not address the problem of giving a 55-year lease to the toll operator.ALDOT did not address the problem of the toll rates being set by the toll company and changeable for 55 years. ALDOT is fixated on charging a toll. They are for the toll, the whole toll and nothing but the toll. ALDOT basically said, ‘It’s my way or no highway.’”

The Mobile River Bridge is in an Opportunity Zone meaning that there are enormous federal and state tax benefits to the investors in the project.

Byrne is running as a candidate for U.S. Senate.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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