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Ainsworth opposes Mobile River toll bridge plan

Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth became the latest Alabama elected official to announce his opposition to a controversial new Alabama Department of Transportation plan to build a bridge over the Mobile River and pay for it by tolling motorists who use I-10 for the next 55 years.

“A state that built the rockets that sent men to the moon should be able to find a way to build a bridge without extorting the citizens it seeks to serve,” Ainsworth said in a videotaped statement he posted to social media.

Ainsworth has a seat on the nine-member Alabama Toll Road and Bridge Authority that has to approve the project. He said that if the plan comes before the board “I will proudly be casting a no vote and standing with the hardworking families of Baldwin and Mobile Counties.”

Toll bridge opponents have been writing and emailing the nine members of the toll authority, including Ainsworth urging them to be no votes on the plan.

Ainsworth says that the plan “quite frankly violates every conservative belief and principle that I hold.”

The lieutenant governor said that he can not support a plan that makes a working family in Baldwin and Mobile Counties spend $2,200 a year that could be used on food or other necessities of life just to get back and forth to work.

Ainsworth said that tolling the existing Wallace Tunnel that has already been fully paid for makes an already outrageous plan completely unacceptable.

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Ainsworth joins other state constitutional officers, Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill and State Auditor Jim Zeigler, in opposing the ALDOT proposal to turn I-10 into a toll road to improve travel speed and reduce traffic congestion.

ALDOT’s plan is to form a public private partnership (P3) with a multi-national conglomerate in order to build an I-10 bridge over the Mobile River. The bridge will have 210 feet of vertical clearance so all manner of oceangoing traffic, including the new bigger cruise ships, can easily pass underneath en route upriver to the Alabama State Docks. The bridge and replacement of the existing Bayway is projected to cost a staggering $2.1 billion. ALDOT claims the Bayway needs to be replaced with a new taller eight-lane roadway.

The private corporate partners would get their money back, as well as profits, by tolling both the bridge and the existing Wallace tunnels for the next 55 years to pay for the project. Frequent travelers between Mobile and Baldwin counties would be able to purchase unlimited toll bridge access for just $90 a month. An annual membership would cost $1,080 per car. For a family with two cars, unlimited use of the toll bridge would cost $2,160 a year. Other travelers on I-10 would receive a bill in the mail for $6 for every time they crossed the bridge of used the tunnel and Bayway. There will be higher tolls for large trucks and for vehicles towing a trailer, and there likely will be an administrative fee applied. Motorists who do not pay their toll bills would lose ability to purchase vehicle tag renewals.

The bridge is in a federal Opportunity Zone, so the international investors bidding on the plan could potentially receive $hundreds of millions of tax breaks from federal, state, and local taxes.

While I-10 users would be tolled, under the ALDOT plan, the Mobile Causeway, the Cochran-Africatown bridge and the Bankhead Tunnel would continue to allow free travel in and out of Mobile for motorists who are unable or unwilling to pay the expensive tolls.

Recent polling of Mobile and Baldwin Counties show that 77 percent of the people in the area also opposing building the bridge, if it is going to be tolled.

Zeigler has been leading the grassroots opposition movement to the project. 51,908 people have joined his Facebook group opposing the toll bridge plan.

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Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-Montrose) has asked Governor Kay Ivey to pause the plan so that the state can explore other options. U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D) similarly has announced his opposition to ALDOT’s plan.

Many toll bridge opponents have said that until the state can afford to pay for the bridge no bridge should be built. Ivey has said that the cost of not building the bridge and accepting traffic congestion in and out of Mobile going forward is unacceptable.

“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,” Ivey recently wrote. “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.”

The Mayors of both Spanish Fort and Fairhope are opposing the plan to toll the bridge.

There is a meeting of the Mobile Metropolitan Planning Organization on Wednesday. The Mobile MPO is scheduled to vote on its transportation improvements priority (TIP) list for 2020 to 2023. Delisting the bridge as a local transportation improvement priority would effectively kill the bridge because federal law prevents the federal government from providing any funding to projects not requested by local regional planners. Toll bridge opponents are calling on members of the Mobile MPO to vote to reject the toll bridge. Bridge opponents are similarly asking the same thing of the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization, where the Baldwin County Mayors opposed to the project have seats on the board. That group meets on August 28 and could consider the measure then.

There will be a public meeting of the nine-member Toll Bridge and Road Authority on October 7 to discuss the project and whether or not to move forward on awarding the P3 contract.

Ainsworth’s defection means that there is at least one no vote. Pressure is being put on the other members of the Toll Authority, including Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) and State Representative Steve Clouse (R-Ozark), to also vote no. ALDOT director John Cooper has been an outspoken proponent of the toll bridge plan so is almost certainly a yes vote if this project gets that far.

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(Original reporting by the Alabama Media Group contributed to the report.)

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

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