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Infrastructure

Jones: PROTECT grants could be a new funding source for the Mobile Bay Bridge

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced a bipartisan highway bill that included a provision that is similar to one first written by U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, in the Be Safe Act. Jones said a new grant program in the bill could provide new funding for roads and bridges, including the Mobile I-10 bridge.

“The new PROTECT grants program could provide a much-needed source of federal revenue for the Mobile Bay Bridge, our aging rural roads, and other infrastructure projects across Alabama,” Jones said in a statement.

The Senate committee approved the $287 billion highway bill unanimously. Jones’ office called it the most substantial highway bill in history. America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act includes a new infrastructure funding program similar to legislation authored by Jones.

The bill establishes a new program, called PROTECT grants, that would provide $1 billion each year for competitive grants and $4 billion in formula funding for improving road and bridge infrastructure, and includes provisions from Senator Jones’ Be SAFE Act. Senator Jones introduced the Be SAFE Act in March in an effort to bring more federal dollars to Alabama to invest in life-saving evacuation routes and repair and improve roadways in the state’s small and rural communities.

Jones has criticized recent Alabama Department of Transportation Mobile Bay Bridge toll proposals and pledged to search for additional federal resources for the bridge.

“Communities that receive these grants would not only benefit from federal investments to improve, replace, or build new roads, bridges, and evacuation routes—but they could also bring a huge economic boost,” Jones said. “I’m proud that the committee built on a program that I introduced and I look forward to seeing all the ways it could benefit Alabama communities in the future.”

The PROTECT grants program includes two components that were priorities for Senator Jones in making sure the program serves Alabama’s small and rural communities: Funding for planning grants to help cash-strapped communities offset the high cost of technical assistance needed before they can even apply for actual infrastructure funding, which can sometimes cost as much as $40,000; A 25-percent set-aside for grants to rural communities with populations under 200,000, which Senator Jones negotiated with committee members. This will ensure that smaller Alabama communities won’t have to compete with larger cities in other states for the same funds.

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The PROTECT grants would come in three categories: of PROTECT grants: Resilience Improvement Grants to improve or replace existing surface transportation infrastructure at risk from extreme weather events and natural disasters; Community Resiliency and Evacuation Routes to improve or establish roads for better and safer evacuation during severe weather events; and At-Risk Coastal Infrastructure Grants to strengthen, stabilize or elevate highways and bridges subject to long-term risk of natural disasters, storm surges, coastal erosion or coastal flooding.

The bill would authorize highway projects for five years starting on October 1, 2020. ALDOT wants to begin construction early next year on their proposal for the bridge.

The ALDOT proposal to fund the $2.1 billion bridge and bayway replacement by tolling I-10 between Mobile and Baldwin Counties is highly unpopular with the residents of the two coastal counties. Over 42,000 residents have joined a Facebook group, led by popular State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R), in opposing the plan.

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Zeigler said in a press statement Tuesday night that he will call on Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) and ALDOT to halt the $2.1 billion toll project for Mobile Bay and await possible inclusion in the new $287 billion fund.

Zeigler said that the new bridge over the Mobile River and Bayway replacement qualifies in two ways – a hurricane evacuation route and traffic congestion and capacity enhancement.

The bill now goes to the Senate floor. If it passes there, it must go to the House of Representatives and, if passed there, onto the President’s desk for signature into law. President Donald J. Trump (R) has been a strong supporter of an infrastructure bill.

House conservatives have been critical of passing a massive infrastructure bill without doing anything to control the growing national debt. Unless this is paid for with a federal fuel tax increase, all the $287 billion would likely be paid for with deficit spending.

This is a tricky situation for ALDOT because they have invited three construction and engineering conglomerates to bid on their $2.1 billion bridge project within the next 80 days. If ALDOT and the Governor were to sign that contract to form a public-private partnership (P3) then those private bridge builders would have the right to toll the new bridge and the existing Wallace Tunnels for the next 55 years, even if a federal funding solution later became available.

The Mobile Bay Bridge project is in a designated Opportunity Zone. Under existing federal and state laws, if the P3 project were approved as an O-Zone project, the investors could be shielded from paying most federal, state, and local taxes on their profits and construction materials for decades to come.

Motorists who can not afford or refuse to pay the tolls would have to take the causeway by the World War II battleship or the Africatown bridge.

It is the ALDOT position that there will not be any new bridge over Mobile Bay unless it is a toll bridge.

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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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.

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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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Infrastructure

Shelby announces more than $15 million in grants for projects in Tuscaloosa, the Wiregrass region

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby on Thursday announced that the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded two grants totaling more than $15 million for infrastructure projects and planning in Tuscaloosa and the Wiregrass region. 

One Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development grant for $15 million is to be used to improve access to the Riverwalk area in West Tuscaloosa and a second grant of $450,000 to the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission is to fund feasibility studies related to transportation projects in the Wiregrass region, according to a press release from Shelby’s office. 

“I am proud to announce that Alabama has been awarded two BUILD grants, one to improve infrastructure investments in Tuscaloosa and a planning grant to assist the Wiregrass region,” Shelby said in a statement. “Both BUILD grants will provide important federal resources that will improve infrastructure and promote increased economic development opportunities in Alabama. I would like to thank Secretary Chao, the Department of Transportation, as well as the local communities for their work on these projects.”

The $15 million grant for Tuscaloosa will be used to make improvements to the Black Warrior River barge mooring, construct a bicycle and pedestrian path and complete a pedestrian bridge. The mooring improvements will allow the abandoned lock structure to be used for the construction of the shared-use path, according to the release. The pedestrian bridge will cross the new Jack Warner Parkway, and the bicycle and pedestrian path will run from the new pedestrian bridge to the existing riverfront park to the east, with lighting and security elements.

The $450,000 grant to the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission will fund the studies of a project that would widen approximately 24 miles of State Route 167 from a two-lane to a four-lane, from the Alabama State Line to U.S. Route 84.

The second project would widen approximately 13 miles of State Route 52, extending a segment from Geneva to Dothan that is currently being widened to State Route 167. Both of these projects could receive construction funding in the future, according to Shelby’s office.

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Infrastructure

Governor announces $1.5 million for local road, bridge projects

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Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Transportation on Wednesday announced $1.5 million in state funding being awarded to cities and counties for various local road and bridge projects.

The funding comes in the final award cycle during the inaugural year of the Annual Grant Program, a new program created under the Rebuild Alabama Act. The Rebuild Alabama Act requires ALDOT to establish an annual program setting aside $10 million off the top of the state’s share of new gas tax revenue for local road and bridge projects.

This award cycle added six projects to the 37 projects funded earlier this year, bringing the total amount of state funds during the inaugural year of the Annual Grant Program to $10.2 million, exceeding the amount of state funds required by the Rebuild Alabama Act. A total of $7 million in state funds was awarded in January, and $1.7 million in state funds was awarded in June.

“We are well on our way to rebuilding Alabama’s roads and bridges, and this $1.5 million is a significant step of the process. When I signed the Rebuild Alabama Act into law, I assured the people of Alabama that all areas of our state would see a benefit, and we are delivering on that promise,” Ivey said. “Not only will we see these improvements as we drive on our roads, but we will see a ripple effect in areas like public safety and economic development. Investing in Alabama’s infrastructure is truly an investment in Alabama’s future.” 

In this latest round of funding, the six local governments receiving state funds are providing a total of $705,941 in local matching funds even though matching funds are not required to be eligible for the Annual Grant Program.

It is anticipated that all projects will be under contract by the end of the calendar year after bids are taken.

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Environment

Alabama Power extends summer pool on Lake Martin into fall

Brandon Moseley

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(ALABAMA TOURISM DEPARTMENT)

Last week, Alabama Power announced that it is extending the summer pool on Lake Martin into fall, allowing more boating and recreational opportunities than would be possible if the implementation of the winter drawdown began last Tuesday as scheduled.

Hydro Services manager Jim Crew said that the fall extension is granted because water is plentiful throughout the Tallapoosa and Coosa river basins and conditions are met at Alabama Power dams across the system.

Until Oct. 15, Lake Martin’s water level will remain at 491 feet mean sea level. After that date, the level gradually will be drawn down to 484 feet mean sea level by the third week of November. The seasonal drawdown has several advantages, the most important of which is flood prevention. The winter pool level provides storage space in the reservoir system for spring rains.

At the local level, the lower water allows repairs and improvements to docks that are underwater during the summer. The drawdown also allows more access to the lake bottom during winter cleanup efforts and assists in the control of some invasive weed species along the shoreline as well.

Alexander City Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ed Collari said that extending the summer pool level offers economic benefits to Lake Martin communities that provide services to part-time lake residents and visitors.

“Economically, that’s great news for our community,” Collari said. “The increased lake levels will allow people to continue to enjoy the lake into the fall. We’ve seen already this year what having people here around the lake will do, as that’s reflected in our community sales tax levels. The higher water level will encourage people to spend more time in our communities.”

Alabama Power is licensed to operate Martin Dam and manage the reservoir. The license stipulates Sept. 1 as the drawdown commencement date unless four specific criteria are met, indicating that the system of reservoirs on the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers contains enough water to maintain navigation levels downstream.

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The conditional fall extension of the summer pool is new to the licensing terms for Lake Martin. It was not included in license terms of Alabama Power’s earlier licenses, but the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission added it to the license issued in December 2015 after the lake community overwhelmingly argued for it.

Analysis of data at that time indicated the fall extension could be expected to occur about once every four years; however, this is the third year since the license has been in effect the fall extension has been granted.

Rainfall has been far above average in the Lake Martin area this year. Normal precipitation for the period of January through August is just under 39 inches, but more than 54 inches of rain have fallen in the lake area so far, according to the National Weather Service.

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Alabama Power representatives urge boaters to enjoy the extension of summer safely.

Individuals with boats and other water-related equipment and facilities should always be alert to changing conditions on Alabama Power reservoirs and be prepared to take the necessary steps to protect their properties.

Manmade lakes across Alabama provide fishing, boating and recreational opportunities to people across Alabama. It also provides habitat for wildlife including ducks, geese, turtles and many other water birds including seagulls.

The lakes provide plenty of cheap, renewable electric power through the hydro-electric dams Alabama Power operates while increasing shoreline habitat and flood control.

For more information about Alabama Power lakes, download the new Smart Lakes app or visit apcshorelines.com. You can call 800-525-3711 for lake condition updates.

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