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Opinion | Mobile River Bridge and Bayway Project: The cost of doing nothing is too high

Gov. Kay Ivey

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For the past 25 years, serious efforts have been underway to design and eventually build a new bridge along Interstate 10 that runs through Mobile and Baldwin counties.  Once completed, this bridge would relieve the growing congestion along this busy corridor that runs from Florida to California.

Building a bridge over a major shipping channel with an active waterfront, as is the case in downtown Mobile, was always going to be a challenge even when the price tag was projected to be $850 million.  In recent months, the effort to consider a toll to help pay for this project – where the price tag has climbed to more than $2 billion – has only added to the challenge.

Most people agree a new bridge is necessary. However, the most significant obstacle has always been how to pay for it. As governor, I am committed to looking at all reasonable solutions to move this project forward.

In February, I told President Trump that I strongly support his major new infrastructure package. However, we all know that waiting on Washington to agree on anything isn’t a realistic option.  Besides, if additional federal funding comes, there would be provisions to lower the toll which, based on the current proposal, would be about $2.25 per vehicle for those who use the bridge on a regular basis. 

A little history…

Tolls have been used since the 1920s to connect Alabama’s coastal counties.  The old Cochrane Bridge had a $1 per car toll.  And in 1941, a toll plaza for the Bankhead Tunnel was installed when it opened, charging motorists 25 cents per car.

Almost one million vehicles traveled through the Bankhead Tunnel during its first year of use.  This toll remained until the mid-1970s and would amount to $4.25 today if it had remained. 

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Thirty-two years later, when the Wallace Tunnel opened in 1973, the capacity was approximately 36,000 vehicles.

Today, almost 50 years later, the daily traffic count numbers are around 75,000 vehicles with holidays and summer traffic often seeing upwards of 100,000 vehicles per day. 

Throw in a wreck or breakdown — there were 132 crashes from June 2018 to May 2019 during peak travel times — and it is not uncommon for drivers to have delays of 75 minutes or more. 

One can only imagine how long the delays and backups will be when the daily traffic count is 100,000 in the not-too-distant future.

Fast forward to today…

One obvious reason for the congestion is the Wallace Tunnel and existing Bayway are only four-lanes wide.  To meet our growing needs, the Bayway needs to become an eight-lane bridge. Because of anticipated growth of the metropolitan Mobile area, there will be added roadway congestion in this already-busy area.  The plans to move Mobile Regional Airport to the Brookley Aeroplex is just one example of an already crowded area becoming even more so in years to come.

Additionally, we have been told that the existing Bayway, which was is over 40 years old, cannot be widened without being raised, requiring a new structure if we are going to use the Federal dollars we are seeking.   

Since Hurricanes Ivan in 2004 and Katrina in 2005 washed away numerous roads and bridges, including some along I-10, new bridges along coastal regions are now required to meet a 100-year storm surge level.

Another key factor that has added to the cost – perhaps one of the most important – is the required height of a new Mobile River Bridge.  As you know, the State recently committed $100 million over the next decade to improving the Port of Alabama which has a $22 billion annual economic impact on our state. 

And by working closely with Senator Shelby and the rest of the Alabama Congressional Delegation, efforts are already underway to ensure our port has an even greater impact in the future by being able to take the biggest cargo ships in the world.

Planning for this growth – both cargo ships and even larger cruise ships – requires the bridge to be raised from its original design of 190 feet to 215 feet. We must position our state for the next 50 to 100 years as a world leader in trade and commerce. 

Some new Federal dollars are on the way

Last month, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and our federal delegation announced that Alabama was selected for a $125 million Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) Grant to help finance the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway Project.

While we are grateful for this grant, it represents just six percent of the total estimated cost. 

Finding the money to pay for this project – the biggest infrastructure project in our state’s history – was never going to be easy.  Be assured, we will continue to look to Washington for additional help that can make this project a reality.

“No Toll or No Bridge”

In recent weeks, some in the “No Toll or No Bridge” camp have suggested we ought to just “slow this down” and wait until after the next presidential election. 

Slowing down a project that is almost a quarter century old seems unwise. The cost of doing nothing is too high and no one is suggesting it will get any cheaper if we just wait. 

Like others, I am sensitive to those legitimate concerns of what a toll would do to working families, lower and middle-class citizens, small businesses, students and the elderly. 

However, there are also countless individuals who would like the option of choosing a safer, less congested route across the Mobile River and Bay – even if it means that route will come with a toll.  Keep in mind, there will always be “toll-free” options for anyone who wants or needs to cross Mobile Bay for free. 

To those who say the bridge can be built without a toll, I simply ask you to show us how. 

To that end, I am inviting all who have different suggestions to build the bridge to a meeting that will be held on October 7th in Montgomery. Elected leaders from local, state and federal office will be given an opportunity to show us their plan and the meeting will be open to the public. 

This project is too important for us to be paralyzed by misinformation and inaction. I hope we can prove that when we work together, there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

 

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Governor

Governor awards $48 million to Department of Education, up to $50 million for higher education

Staff

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday awarded $48 million of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERF) to the Alabama State Department of Education in response to challenges related to COVID-19. This allocation will enable schools to enact policies established in the Alabama State Department of Education’s Roadmap to Reopening Schools.

As schools across Alabama are navigating increased challenges related to COVID-19, this initial investment will assist by providing budget stability, enable distance learning for any student that seeks it, and get additional resources to students most in need.

The allocation will be used as follows:

  • $10 million to equip all school buses with WiFi capabilities to increase internet connectivity and help bridge the digital divide
  • $4 million to improve remote learning opportunities by providing digital textbook and library resources for all students
  • $26 million to provide additional academic support to bridge learning and achievement gaps
  • $9 million to support intensive before and after school tutoring resources for learning and remediation in schools

Additionally, Alabama institutions of higher education will be able to submit requests for a combined reimbursement of up to $50 million of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). Alabama received approximately $1.9 billion of CARES Act funding to respond to and mitigate the coronavirus pandemic. Alabama Act 2020-199 designated up to $118.3 million of the Coronavirus Relief Fund for any lawful purpose as provided by the United States Congress, the United States Treasury Department, or any other federal entity of competent jurisdiction.

“I am pleased to invest in our state’s greatest asset – our students,” Governor Ivey said. “As we respond and adapt to COVID-19, we must ensure that our local school districts and institutions of higher education receive necessary support and provide our students full access to their educational opportunities. Closing school during the pandemic disproportionately impacts students who are already struggling, and it is our obligation to provide as much stability and access possible in these uncertain times.”

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Elections

Jefferson County GOP pens letter to governor complaining of Democrat appointed as probate judge

Brandon Moseley

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Gov. Kay Ivey speaks at a press conference. (via Governor's Office)

The members of Jefferson County Republican Party Steering Committee last week sent a letter to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey bitterly complaining about her recent appointment of Jim Naftel, a Democrat, as a Jefferson County probate judge.

“We, both as elected officials and leaders of the Jefferson County Republican Party Steering Committee, on behalf of the entire Jefferson County Republican Executive Committee wish to express our displeasure in your appointment to Jefferson County Probate Judge, Place 1,” the letter reads.

“Our main objection is we had one request and that was one request only – the appointment of qualified Republican to this post,” the Jefferson County GOP continued. “In recent history, your pick for this position was given the opportunity to participate in the Republican Primary, he chose to vote as a Democrat. In 2018, when you were running for Governor in the Republican Primary, he chose to vote a Democrat ballot. Even this past March of 2020, when he had a chance to cast his vote for President Donald Trump, he again chose to vote in the Democrat primary.”

“Secondly, this position runs all elections for Jefferson County,” the Steering Committee added. “On June 30th, Secretary of State John Merrill was quoted in Alabama Today as stating, ‘The probate judge has a significant level of influence. I cannot emphasize how important it is that this person is involved, interested, and informed on all things related to elections.’ We have no knowledge of your appointee’s experience in this area. We are not aware of his previous expertise in the election process at the county level or having been involved with any level of ballot security activities in our County.”

In the letter, the members said all of the Republican legislators and commissioners recommended a specific qualified Republican to be appointed to this post.

“This Republican had been recommended and mentored by a former ALGOP General Counsel who you personally hired to be your legal counsel during your last campaign,” the letter reads. “This choice was clearly experienced in the elections area of the Probate position and was best prepared to serve as our chief elections officer. Rarely, if ever, do all of these people agree on one thing and they agreed on this. These above stated reasons are why we, both as elected leaders in Jefferson County and members of the Jefferson County Republican Party, would like you to be aware of our displeasure for your selection of Probate Judge, we request a clear explanation of why this choice was selected despite the request as outlined above, and we hope you will listen to our counsel on future appointments in Jefferson County.”

The letter was signed by Jefferson County Republican Party Chairman Paul DeMarco and the other officers and members of the steering committee.

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Naftel was appointed to fill the position previously held by Judge Alan King, who has retired after 19 years of service.

“As one of my appointees, you will be making important decisions that directly affect the citizens of Alabama,” Ivey wrote to Naftel. “I have made honesty and integrity a priority in my Administration, and I know that you will embody these two virtues while serving the people of Alabama. Please plan to be a good steward of the taxpayers’ money and work in your position to instill trust in state government. The responsibility that comes with this appointment is not to be taken lightly. I trust that you will rise to the occasion and set a standard for others to follow.”

Naftel was an attorney with Maynard, Coooper & Gale, where he has worked since 1998.

“Jim is a shareholder and member of the Firm’s Estate, Trust and Business Planning Practice, Fiduciary Advisory Services Practice, and the Fiduciary, Trust and Estate Litigation Practice groups,” the firm wrote in his bio on their website. “In his Fiduciary Litigation practice, Jim advises and represents both individuals and corporate fiduciaries in their capacity as trustees and executors, including pre-litigation, mediation, trial and appellate proceedings. Jim also represents beneficiaries of estates and trusts. In addition, Jim represents clients in proceedings related to financial abuse of the elderly, conservatorships, guardianships and other protective proceedings.”

Naftel is a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, has been recognized as one of The Best Lawyers in America in the areas of Trust and Estates and Litigation: Trusts and Estates. He earned a law degree from the University of Alabama law school in 1998. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi in 1994.

“It is an honor to be appointed and I look forward to serving Jefferson County in this role,” Naftel told AL.com.

Republicans, including Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan, had been urging the governor to appoint a Republican to the position.

Former Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead wrote hours ahead of the appointment, “For the life of me, I cannot understand why we are even having a conversation about our Republican governor appointing a Democrat as the top election official in Jefferson County. If we have to lobby our Republican governor to appoint a Republican to this important position we have a real problem!”

While Republicans continue to dominate Alabama politics, the party has grown increasingly uncompetitive in Jefferson County, where Republican Sheriff Mike Hale was defeated in 2018 and the last two Republican district attorneys were both defeated in general elections.

While Hillary Clinton was trounced statewide in 2016, she carried Jefferson County, as did Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008.

The last time that a Republican presidential nominee carried Jefferson County was incumbent President George W. Bush back in 2004. Naftel’s appointment could perhaps be interpreted as meaning that the governor’s office believes that Jefferson County is a lost cause for Republicans moving forward given recent demographic changes and that the best a Republican governor can hope for is to pick the best Democrat for countywide office as a Republican would lose reelection.

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Courts

Lawsuit claims governor ignored nomination process to appoint probate judge

Micah Danney

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James "Jim" Naftel II

A lawsuit filed Wednesday is challenging Gov. Kay Ivey’s appointment of Birmingham attorney James “Jim” Naftel II as Jefferson County probate judge place 1.

The suit, filed the day Ivey announced the appointment, alleges she circumvented the Jefferson County Judicial Commission’s nominating process. She should have selected an appointee from a list of three nominees provided by the commission as the state’s Constitution requires, the suit says.

“Because Judge Naftel was not lawfully or properly appointed as Probate Judge of Jefferson County, he is currently usurping, intruding, and unlawfully holding that office,” the suit alleges.

Ivey’s office said she disagrees with the suit’s interpretation of the law. 

“The state constitution gives the governor the authority to fill this vacancy,” said Gina Maiola, Ivey’s press secretary. “Judge Naftel is highly qualified to serve as probate judge, and the governor looks forward to his many years of excellent public service to the people of Jefferson County and the state as a whole.”

Barry Ragsdale, an attorney with the firm Sirote & Permutt, P.C., said that he has no issue with who Ivey chose, only how she did it.

“I frankly have nothing but respect for Judge Naftel,” Ragsdale said. “I think he’ll make a great probate judge. I think he’s going to end up being the probate judge, but it’s about protecting a process that we’ve had in Jefferson County for 70 years.”

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Jefferson County was the first of six counties to create such a commission. It originally applied only to Jefferson County Circuit Court, but that was expanded in 1973 to include any judicial office, the suit says — including probate judges. 

Ragsdale said it is important because the process is meant to provide local input into whom potential judges are. Commissioners are local citizens who likely know the people they nominate, whereas a governor probably doesn’t. 

“That takes most of the politics out of it,” Ragsdale said. He noted that before the first commission was created in 1950, George Wallace appointed his relatives to the bench when vacancies opened. A local screening process prevents that, Ragsdale said.

“We have that, we fought for it, and we fought governors for decades to follow the process,” he said.

Ragsdale believes this is a case of a governor simply wanting to exercise power, he said.

“She’s absolutely wrong about what the law says, and we intend to prove that,” Ragsdale said.

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Economy

Ivey announces SiO2’s $163 million expansion in Auburn

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced Wednesday that SiO2 Materials Science plans to invest $163 million in an expansion at its Auburn facility.

The announcement came just after securing a major contract to supply the federal government with vials to support the COVID-19 vaccine effort if and when an effective vaccine is developed. The project will create 220 jobs.

“It is exciting to know that SiO2 will be directly involved in providing a product essential to addressing the COVID-19 crisis, which will impact not only Alabamians but the entire country,” Ivey said. “This is a testament to the ingenuity of this great company and its growing Alabama workforce.”

Economic developer Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Vials produced by SiO2 Materials Science may be the critical component needed to ensure safety in the vaccine distribution process. The breakthrough technology developed by the Auburn-based company provides a glimmer of hope amidst challenging times and showcases how Alabamians are working diligently to craft solutions that will assist our nation and the world in the fight against COVID-19. In addition, the 220 new, high-skilled jobs housed in Auburn Technology Park West will bring economic benefits to Lee County as well as the entire state of Alabama.”

The expansion will allow SiO2 to increase its production capacity so that it can meet the expected demand for vials and syringes when a coronavirus vaccine is finally approved for mass use.

In June, SiO2 announced an $143 million contract with federal government agencies for a production scale-up of the company’s state-of-the-art packaging platform for storing novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) vaccines and therapeutics.

Bobby Abrams is the CEO of SiO2.

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“The pandemic presents an enormous challenge for all people,” Abrams said. “We are extremely grateful for Senator Shelby’s steadfast support and assistance, and we’re honored to collaborate with our government so a COVID-19 vaccine can be safely and quickly distributed. The State of Alabama and the City of Auburn for many years have been very supportive of SiO2 Materials Science during its research, development, commercialization, and now scale-up phases of the company.”

Over the last 10 years, SiO2 has developed its patented vial platform, which combines a plastic container with a microscopic, pure glass coating on the inside that is ideal for biological drugs and vaccines. The product, developed in Auburn with help from experts from four major U.S. research institutions, combines the benefits of both glass and plastic without drawbacks.

“There are problems with plastic, and there are problems with glass, and we resolve all of them,” Abrams said.

SiO2 will expand its existing facility at 2250 Riley Street and will invest in a new molding facility at 2425 Innovation Drive, both located in the Auburn Technology Park West.

Construction is already under way to expand the facility on Innovation Drive. The completed approximately 70,000-square-foot facility will increase the production capacity of SiO2’s injection molding operation.

“We’re proud to have some of the world’s leading scientists and product developers working in our community,” Auburn Mayor Ron Anders said. “With the presence of these companies and Auburn University’s outstanding medical and engineering programs, we believe we’ll see significant growth in the biotech industry right here in Auburn. On top of that, the well-paying jobs created through this project will result in significant economic opportunities for our local businesses.”

Greg Canfield, the secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said that SiO2’s expansion project in Auburn will help ensure that the nation’s health authorities have an ample supply of vials and syringes to administer a vaccine for COVID-19 as soon as it is developed.

“Having a steady supply of SiO2’s innovative vials will represent a key strategic advantage for federal agencies wanting to act rapidly once a vaccine is available to counter the coronavirus,” Canfield said.

Robert S. Langer is a professor at the David H. Koch Institute at MIT and a company adviser.

A key element of SiO2’s product is enhanced safety for healthcare providers and for patients, who are at a lower risk of adverse side effects. A combination of plastic and a microscopic layer of glass also means vials and syringes won’t break, shatter or crack. SiO2 ships its products worldwide.

“Many drug development and drug formulation innovations can be limited due to variables associated with traditional glass vials and syringes,” Langer said. “The SiO2 vials and syringes eliminate these variables and allow drug development partners to bring their innovations to life.”

SiO2 is a privately-owned company based in Auburn, where it has around 200 employees. The Retirement Systems of Alabama provided early financial support for the company.

517,464 people have already died from the COVID-19 global pandemic, including 130,602 Americans.

 

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