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Marsh says that “a $6 toll is not fair or reasonable”

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, the Alabama Department of Transportation’s Mobile River Bridge plan received another crushing body blow when a powerful State Senator and a member of the Alabama Toll Bridge and Road Authority came out publicly against the plan.

State Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said in a statement that a six dollar toll is not fair or reasonable.

“The matter of toll roads and bridges should be left up to local communities with input from their citizens and legislators on what is fair and how those much those tolls should be,” Marsh said. “I will, explore all legislative options to ensure this project is fair and reasonable to the citizens of South Alabama — and a $6 toll is not fair or reasonable.”

This came fresh on the heels of an announcement Monday from Alabama Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth (R) that he opposes ALDOT’s controversial toll bridge plan and will be a no vote.

The two powerful state leaders are two of the nine members of the Alabama Toll Bridge and Road Authority that will ultimately decide the fate of the ALDOT toll bridge, if this project even gets that far.

“I will proudly be casting a no vote and standing with the hardworking families of Baldwin and
Mobile Counties,” Ainsworth said.

The plan faces a critical test today at the Mobile Metropolitan Planning and Organization today. 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.

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Bridge opponents are similarly the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning to delist the unpopular toll bridge from their TIP list. The Mayors of Fairhope and Spanish Fort both publicly oppose the ALDOT plan and they have seats on the Mobile MPO board.

That group meets on August 28 and could consider the measure then.

Marsh’s comment that, “The matter of toll roads and bridges should be left up to local communities with input from their citizens and legislators on what is fair and how those much those tolls should be,” is a strong blow to the toll bridge plan.

Polling shows that 77 percent of the people in Mobile and Baldwin Counties oppose the toll bridge plan. An incredible 52,391 citizens, mostly from South Alabama, have joined a Facebook group opposing the toll bridge plan. If this is a local issue, then the people of South Alabama have spoken in a loud, clear voice to anyone who is listening that they do not want a toll bridge.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) went on Birmingham talk radio station 99.5 FM on Tuesday and said that the bridge was a statewide issue because of planned ambitious port improvements and the economic impact that will have for the rest of the state.

A working family in Baldwin and Mobile Counties with two cars would spend almost $2,200 a year on prepaid toll passes.

Toll opponents insist that would be an excessive burden.

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 that 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.

Original reporting by the Alabama Media Group, the Yellowhammer News, and 99.5 FM News/Talk in Birmingham contributed to this report.

 

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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Health

Madison County mask order goes into effect Tuesday

Eddie Burkhalter

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Studies have shown that wearing masks reduces transmission of coronavirus.

Madison County’s health officer issued a face mask order to slow the spread of COVID-19, which goes into effect Tuesday at 5 p.m. 

Madison County Health Officer Dr. Karen Landers, who also serves as the assistant state health officer, issued the order, which requires those over the age of 2 to wear masks in businesses or venues open to the public, while on public transportation, in outdoor areas open to the public where 10 or more people are gathered and where maintaining 6 feet of distance from others is not possible. 

“We need to do all we can to limit the spread of COVID-19,” State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said in a statement. “Until we have a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, wearing a face covering in public is a key measure we have available to prevent transmission of the virus.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle in a statement expressed support for the mask order. Madison County now joins Jefferson County, Montgomery, Mobile and Selma in requiring masks while in public. 

“This is a simple math problem. Since June 16, the number of positive cases in Madison County has tripled, and the number of hospitalizations has increased 660 percent,” Battle said in the statement. “We need to take precautionary measures, such as wearing face covers, distancing 6 feet, and handwashing to provide a safe environment for our citizens.” ​​

Madison Mayor Paul Finley also noted the surging cases and said he supports the order. 

“Since day one, we as elected officials have said we would work to find the balance of personal versus economic health. While personal responsibility is still paramount, our dramatic rising numbers dictate this step be taken to continue to support all citizens’ safety,” Finley said in a statement. 

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Medical experts believe COVID-19 is most often spread when an infected person, with or without symptoms, talks, coughs or sneezes. Studies have shown that wearing masks reduces transmission of coronavirus.

Other exceptions to Madison County’s mask order include:

  • Persons while eating or drinking.
  • Patients in examination rooms of medical offices, dental offices, clinics or hospitals where their examination of the mouth or nasal area is necessary.
  • Customers receiving haircare services, temporary removal of face coverings when needed to provide haircare.
  • Occasions when wearing a face covering poses a significant mental or physical health, safety or security risk. These include worksite risks.
  • Indoor athletic facilities. Patrons are not required to wear face coverings while actively participating in permitted athletic activities, but employees in regular interaction with patrons are required to wear face coverings or masks.
  • Private clubs and gatherings not open to the public and where a consistent 6-foot distance between persons from different households is maintained.

“Although not mandated, face coverings are strongly recommended for congregants at worship services and for situations where people from different households are unable to or unlikely to maintain a distance of 6 feet from each other,” the department said in a statement on the order.

This is a simple math problem. Since June 16, the number of positive cases in Madison County has tripled, and the number of hospitalizations has increased 660 percent."

Parents must ensure children over 2 years old wear masks in public, and childcare establishments and schools are to develop their face covering policies and procedures, according to the department.

The order also mandates that businesses and venues open to the public provide a notice stating that face coverings are required inside, and signage is required at all public entrances. 

“Wearing a face covering can help keep family, co-workers, and community safe,” Harris said. “This is the simplest act of kindness you can take for yourself, your family and your community, especially for those who are at high risk of contracting the virus.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health advises these actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds
  • Social distance by staying 6 feet away from others
  • Avoid people who are sick
  • Stay home if you can; work remotely if possible
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a face covering when around others
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
  • Monitor your health

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Push to rename Edmund Pettus Bridge gains steam, but Selma activists want their say

The latest effort to rename the bridge is gaining momentum, with a petition surpassing 300,000 signatures, but residents of Selma are saying not so fast.

Micah Danney

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The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The latest effort to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge is gaining momentum, with its online petition surpassing 300,000 signatures and attracting some high-profile supporters, but residents of Selma are saying not so fast.

“We don’t agree that one person’s name should go on the bridge because it was a collective of people that made that happen,” said Alan Reese, of Selma, whose grandfather F.D. Reese was one of the “Courageous Eight” who invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to join their push for voting rights.

The bridge became a landmark of the civil rights movement in 1965, when state troopers and a white posse attacked the roughly 600 marchers who crossed it as they attempted to march to Montgomery to register to vote.

The event became known as Bloody Sunday and galvanized support for civil rights for Black Americans. Among the beaten was Georgia Rep. John Lewis, then a member of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

His role as a leader of that march, and the injuries he suffered from a trooper’s baton, made him the focus of The John Lewis Bridge Project, a nonprofit formed last month by Michael Starr Hopkins, who has worked as a political strategist for several Democratic campaigns.

Hopkins had just watched the 2014 film “Selma” and looked up who Edmund Pettus was. When he learned that Pettus had been a Confederate general and reputed grand wizard in the Ku Klux Klan, Hopkins decided he wanted to do something to change the bridge’s name. He created the petition, and within 24 hours, it had more than 10,000 signatures.

Its goal is half a million signatures, Hopkins said. He’s also raising money to start an outreach program in Alabama and nationally to build a pressure campaign to change the name. 

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Lewis responded to a previous petition to rename the bridge in his honor with a statement that it was not his desire. His office has not addressed the current effort. Lewis is undergoing treatment after he was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer in December.

Hopkins said he understands Selma residents’ concerns.

“If someone was coming into my back yard and wasn’t from where I was from, telling me that I needed to change something, you know, I’d be a little ticked off too,” Hopkins said.

After speaking with Reese, he agreed that the citizens of Selma need to be central to the conversation about what will happen to the bridge’s name.

Alternatives to Lewis’s name have been suggested, including bestowing the honor on the “foot soldiers” who marched there, or on the eight activists who led the Dallas County Voters League, which laid the groundwork for the march that made the bridge a global icon of nonviolent struggle.

The very thing that my forefathers and mothers were walking on the bridge to secure was agency."

“Yes his name was on the bridge on Bloody Sunday, but if he had had it his way, none of the people crossing that bridge would have been let out of shackles, and we would still be slaves,” Hopkins said. “So I think that by continuing to keep his name on the bridge, you bestow a sense of honor that he is undeserving of.”

Reese said he plans to speak to Hopkins later this week to figure out how to proceed. This isn’t the first push to rename the bridge, and Reese said that Selma’s residents are tired of outsiders making decisions about what happens to what may be the most famous landmark in their community.

Monuments have faces, he said. The bridge is not a monument, and its history changed the meaning of Pettus’s name, he said, although he understands the urge to change it. If that happens, he wants the name to prompt people to learn about what the people of Selma did before and after Bloody Sunday. If it honored the Couragious Eight, for instance, that might encourage future generations to learn about who they were. 

Reese’s grandfather was not featured in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film, he noted. DuVernay tweeted recently in support of renaming the bridge.

Lydia Chatmon, who works to promote tourism in Selma and is a program manager for the Selma Center for Nonviolence, said that most surviving foot soldiers she has talked to aren’t keen on changing the name. It could also have implications for tourism, she said, noting that the bridge is under review for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The bridge’s renaming is an opportunity to have a valuable conversation at a critical time, Chatmon added. The brutality captured by cameras on the bridge sent shock waves through American society, as did the brutality of George Floyd’s death captured by cell phone cameras, she said. Part of the process of building a better nation is having an open dialogue about issues like the bridge and how its name and legacy are owned and handled.

She looks forward to setting a date for an open town hall where the discussion can take place, likely in early August, she said.

Above all, it is a matter of agency, Chatmon said. King’s model for social change required the consent and participation of the people his work purported to help.

“The very thing that my forefathers and mothers were walking on the bridge to secure was agency,” Chatmon said.

 

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Health

For the first time, more than 1,000 hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alabama

The new highs of 919 patients in hospitals being treated for COVID-19 on Sunday and of 1,016 on Monday were 40 percent higher than the number of patients a week ago.

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alabama hit another record high on Sunday. (Stock photo)

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alabama hit record highs Sunday and Monday, jumping over 900 on Sunday for the first time since the pandemic began, and then surging past 1,000 for the first time on Monday.*This story has been updated throughout at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, July 6 to include the latest figures.

The new highs of 919 patients in hospitals being treated for COVID-19 on Sunday and of 1,016 on Monday were 40 percent higher than the number of patients a week ago on June 28 and more than 50 percent higher than two weeks ago. The seven-day average of that number was also at a new record high Monday.

Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association and a former state health officer, told APR on Monday that 893, or 57 percent of the state’s supply of ventilators, were available Monday morning, while 309 of 1,669 ICU beds, or 18.5 percent, were available. 

Williamson said while those two indicators are encouraging, it may take several weeks to learn whether many of those hospitalized will worsen and require ICUs and ventilators, and possibly lead to a rise in deaths. He said another possibility is that younger people are being admitted for COVID-19 but may not become sick enough to require more of the hospitals’ resources, and doctors are getting better at caring for coronavirus patients.

“We just don’t know yet. We don’t know which way we’re going to go,” Williamson said. “We just know we got a whole lot more cases than we had a month ago, and we’ve got a lot more hospitalizations than we had a month ago.” 

Williamson said that from the week beginning June 29 to the week starting July 5, the average number of daily COVID-19 hospitalizations increased by 140, rising from 658 hospitalizations to 798 hospitalizations on average during that time. He believes the number of confirmed cases will continue to spike after Fourth of July celebrations. 

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For six straight days, Alabama has added more than 900 new COVID-19 cases daily, and on Monday the state recorded 925 new cases, and the 14-day average of new cases was also higher than it’s been since the pandemic began, at 1,025. 

While testing has increased in Alabama, so too has the percent of tests that are positive, a marker public health experts say shows that there still isn’t enough testing and many cases are going undetected. 

We just know we got a whole lot more cases than we had a month ago, and we've got a lot more hospitalizations than we had a month ago.”

The 14-day average of percent positivity was 13.5 percent on Monday, and taking into account incomplete data on negative tests in April, which inflated the positivity percentage, the data Monday was at a record high. Public health experts say the number should be at or below five percent.

The seven-day and 14-day average of daily COVID-19 deaths both were at 11 on Monday, and the numbers have remained largely steady for most of May, June and July.

In the last week, there have been 79 COVID-19 deaths in the state. Since the pandemic began, there have been 984 deaths in Alabama attributed to the virus, and the Alabama Department of Public Health estimates that 23 more deaths are likely due to COVID-19.

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Governor

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

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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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