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Infrastructure

Mobile MPO temporarily takes the Mobile River bridge project off Transportation Improvement Plan

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Department of Transportation experienced yet another setback on Wednesday for its controversial plan to build a bridge of the Mobile River and replace the existing Mobile Bayway. The Mobile Metropolitan Planning Organization voted unanimously to table all items related to the construction of ALDOT’s $2.1 billion toll bridge plan.

What normally would be a mere formality for a project that has advanced this far turned into a raucous public confrontation when an estimated one hundred toll bridge opponents showed up at the normally staid meeting of public officials demanding that they vote to kill the unpopular toll bridge proposal.

“The vote by the Mobile Metropolitan Planning Organization to approve the whole Transportation Improvement plan was quietly expected to sail through a process mandated by a federal law known as MAP-21,” State Auditor and toll opponent Jim Zeigler (R) said in a statement. “Succinctly, MAP-21 requires federal spending to be approved a local transportation planning group, in this case the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission’s MPO.”

The federal government will not fund a project that community leaders do not want and the Mobile MPO consists mostly of local Mobile County elected officials, and they were adverse to defying the collective will of the public…….at least to their faces with TV cameras rolling. That this has been a transportation priority of the Mobile MPO for years did not factor into Wednesday’s decision.

The toll bridge opponents did not get a complete victory. The governor’s office was relieved that the Mobile MPO did not make their decision permanent and formally kill the project forever, which was within their power. Instead they tabled the issue until after the Governor’s called meeting of the Toll Bridge and Road Authority on October 7.

“The MPO carefully and openly considered the merits of the public’s concerns and called timeout,” Zeigler said. “The items tabled today will be held in abeyance until after Alabama Toll Road, Bridge, and Tunnel Authority holds a special meeting on October 7, 2019. ALDOT may not receive or spend any funds on the tabled items until they’re approved.”
Zeigler said that this is a setback “Because this delay likely wrecks ALDOT’s schedule. The three private sector contractors cannot submit their final proposals until all clearances have been received.”

Zeigler has threatened to sue, if the state tries to move forward with this project.

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“This gives steadfast and well-funded bridge opponents more time to prepare their complaints and file their lawsuits against the project,” Zeigler said on the delay. “Those lawsuits will happen if ALDOT and FHWA try to move this project forward as is.”

The Eastern Shore MPO (Baldwin County) meets on Wednesday and they are expected to pass a similar resolution to the Mobile MPO.
The City of Spanish Fort has already passed a resolution opposing the project.

According to a recent poll, 77 percent of the people in South West Alabama oppose the toll bridge and 53,040 of them have joined a Facebook group opposing the plan managed by Zeigler. Most of them are not actually opposed to the concept of a bridge. What has ignited this firestorm, is ALDOT’s insistence that the people who use the bridge have to pay for the bridge through tolls.

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ALDOT announced that a one-way trip across the bridge would cost a motorist $6. For Mobile County residents with a job in Baldwin County (or vice versa) that would mean spending $12 in tolls just to get back and forth to work each day. Eighteen wheelers, large trucks, and trucks pulling trailers would be charged even more. After the public outcry, ALDOT presented a plan where people who are frequent travelers could get an unlimited prepaid pass for $90 a month. That would be $2160 a year for a typical family with two cars.

State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said on Tuesday, “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.”

On Thursday, there was an angry meeting between ALDOT Director John Cooper and local legislators who demanded final say so on whether this plan moves forward or not…..something they did not include in legislation the legislature passed in May authorizing ALDOT to collect tolls on this project.

Cooper told the legislators that he cannot bring them a final plan; because the Mobile MPO took the project off of the TIPs plan to make it illegal for ALDOT to circulate bids for the public-private partnership to build the bridge.

State Rep. Matt Simpson (R-Mobile) angrily said that Gov. Kay Ivey “and five people she employs” can do anything they want to do, referring again to the state Toll Bridge and Road Authority.

(Original reporting by Alabama Media Group’s John Sharp contributed to this report.)

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Education

South Alabama medical residents work alongside Orange Beach first responders

Brandon Moseley

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Residents in USA Health’s Emergency Medicine Residency Program are given the opportunity to rotate with emergency medical services (EMS) in Orange Beach. The residents are stationed at the Orange Beach Fire Department giving resident physicians the experience of responding to emergency calls alongside paramedics and firefighters.

Paul Henning, M.D. is the associate program director of the Emergency Medicine Residency Program at USA Health and medical director of Orange Beach Fire/Rescue.

“The expertise that a patient gets in the field can determine outcomes,” Henning explained. “It bridges the gap between the physician and the paramedic. Seldom, if ever, do physicians have this kind of exposure to prehospital emergency services. It also gives the physician more perspective of what the paramedics are doing in the field. If we have an opportunity to improve the prehospital scope of practice, then we have accomplished our goals.”
Henning also serves as an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine.

He said that it is vital that physicians understand what happens in the prehospital stage of care.
The innovative program was established in July 2019.

Andrew Warner, M.D., took a nonlinear path to emergency medicine. Dr. Warner is a former Green Beret, who served with the U.S. Army 5thSpecial Forces Group on tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Following his military service, he went on to earn his medical degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. He completed his residency training in family medicine at USA Health and started in the emergency medicine program as a second-year resident.

Warner expressed his great respect for the Orange Beach first responders, who “epitomize true dedication to patient care and outcomes.”

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“I have further learned to appreciate just how critical those precious seconds in the prehospital setting are for patient survivability,” Warner added.

Justin Thomas, M.D. is a second-year emergency medicine resident and was the first USA Health resident to rotate in Orange Beach. Thomas said that the experience opened his eyes to the constraints paramedics endure while working in the field, particularly when responding to calls in rural areas of the county.

“There are locations they respond to that may be in the middle of the woods, or down a dirt road someone only goes down once every couple of weeks,” Thomas said. “They have to lug their supplies and the stretcher to the house, assess and care for the patient, and then bring them to the ambulance.”

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The medics are limited by the supplies and tools they have with them, Thomas said. “It’s much different being at a hospital with all the resources at your disposal versus working from an ambulance with limited capabilities.”
Thomas earned his medical degree from the American University of the Caribbean. He took a nontraditional route to emergency medicine. As a resident in USA Health’s Family Medicine Residency Program, he rotated in the emergency department at University Hospital and was attracted to the field.

After graduating from his family medicine residency in June 2019, Thomas was offered a spot in the new Emergency Medicine Residency Program. Dr. Thomas was given approval from the American Board of Emergency Medicine to start as a second-year because of his months of training in emergency medicine during his family medicine residency.

Economic developer Dr Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Response time is critical, especially in rural areas and areas that have longer distances to medical facilities than urban counterparts. The partnership between USA Health emergency medicine residency program and Orange Beach paramedics and fire rescue is a win-win situation. Both parties learn from one another and gain a deeper understanding of the pre-hospital setting, and most importantly, having professionals available in emergency situations with unique skill sets can ultimately save more patients’ lives.”

The partnership is mutually beneficial for USA Health’s emergency medicine residency program and Orange Beach’s paramedical and fire-rescue services. By adding the resident physicians the paramedics are able to provide a higher level of care to patients.

“I love to hear the interaction between our staff and the residents,” said Orange Beach Fire Chief Mike Kimmerling. “Even when they’re not running calls, there is a tremendous amount of knowledge being transferred in their conversations.”

The residents gain more diversity of exposure in Orange Beach than in a larger city like Mobile, Henning said. “Most fire and rescues in large cities are close to hospitals, so the transport time is usually 10 minutes or less, whereas in Orange Beach the time could be significantly longer. When they are able to render care for a longer period of time, they have the chance to sharpen their skills and have more patient exposure.”
Dr. Henning said that Orange Beach also gives the residents the unique experiences of working on fire and rescue boats.

Henning said that before starting the EMS rotation, the residents are required to be fully licensed by the state and to have completed an online medical direction course. If any questions or concerns arise, Henning and other emergency medicine attending physicians with USA Health are always available to provide their medical direction. Residents cannot start the EMS rotation until their second year. As the first class of residents graduate to their second year, six residents will rotate throughout the academic year. Third-years have the option to do an additional EMS rotation.

(Based on original reporting by USA Health’s Lindsay Lyle.)

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Infrastructure

Developer Tim James proposes privately-funded toll road as “catalyst for economic growth”

Bill Britt

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A proposed privately-fund toll road connecting U.S. 280 in Sylacauga to I-65 in Calera will open miles of new highway, giving travelers and businesses much needed access for east-to-west traffic in both counties, according to the company behind the project.

“Imagine faster trips west and south while avoiding U.S. Highway 280 traffic to Birmingham,” writes Lee Perryman for the Sylacauga News “A 36-minute drive from Sylacauga to Interstate 65. New residential and industrial development and increasing property values.”

If approved, the Coosa River Express will be a privately-funded toll bridge developed, owned and operated by Tim James, Inc., a family-run business. James, the son of legendary Alabama governor Fob James, is an experienced developer having built the Foley Beach Express in the 1990s. He is joined in the project by his son and son-in-laws.

His latest project, the Coosa River Express, according to James, will “support driving growth in Shelby and Talladega counties connecting communities, increasing access, reducing commute times and enhancing safety for thousands of drivers each day.”

“The Coosa River Express, if built, is a transportation corridor that will modify travel patterns for generations, positively impacting South Shelby and West Talladega County,” James said in an interview with APR. “It will be the catalyst for economic growth in these areas; in fact, this road project begins at the Shelby County Mega Site along I-65, and goes east through the only qualified opportunity zone in Shelby County.”

No federal or state funds are used to construct the bridge; in fact, Shelby and Talladega Counties can expect to receive miles of new highway and miles of improvements to existing roads that will be paid for by James’ company.

Of the approximate 33 total miles, 27 miles of new and improved roadways constructed will be given to Shelby and Talladega Counties after the project’s completion. The toll bridge over the Coosa River at approximately 1,600 feet in length, which will consist of two 12-foot-wide lanes and 8-foot-wide shoulders, will remain the property of the privately held company.

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Unlike taxpayer-funded roads, the Coosa River Express is a for-profit venture. “We take on a tremendous workload and risk to bring a project like this to fruition and hopefully make money from our efforts,” said James.

The project is estimated to cost around $40 million with two-thirds going to improve county roads.

The corridor creates a triangle starting at the Mega site in Shelby County, then tracks east to Pursell Farms, where it goes south to the proposed Alfa Farm Center a few miles into Chilton County.

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The Westervelt Calera Megasite is a 1,540-acre property in the southern part of Shelby County, off Interstate 65, in one of Alabama’s fastest-growing and most affluent counties, according to facts provided the site developers. Its location puts it within the automotive triangle created by Hyundai to the south, Honda to the northeast, and Mercedes-Benz to the northwest.

The Coosa River Express will also impact the opportunity zone created in Shelby County. An Opportunity Zone is a new alternative economic development program established by Congress in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 to foster private-sector investments in low-income rural and urban areas.

“One important thing that seems to be overlooked in the press is that our project passes through an area of Shelby County where lower-income families live; well over 50 percent of the children in the area qualify for free or reduced lunch,” said James.

The Alabama Farm Center at Alfa Centennial Park calls for a four-building complex on a 500-acres on the east side of Interstate 65 at Exit 212 between Alabama 145 and County Road 43. “The Alabama Farm Center will include a 5,000-seat air-conditioned arena, 150,000 square foot exhibition building, 400-stall horse barn, 400 recreational vehicle hookups and a variety of other barns and arenas,” according to a report by Alabama News Center.

The expressway will make it faster and cheaper to transport goods and livestock to the new farmer’s market.

“Besides the fact that this project will set the travel patterns south of Birmingham for generations, it also creates a badly needed economic shot in the arm to south Shelby and north Chilton Counties,” James noted.

Talladega and Shelby counties in partnership owned and operated a ferry across the Coosa River from mid-1960 until it was abandoned in 1977.

“For decades, leaders have agreed that raising a bridge at the former ferry location and the more direct southern access to Interstate 65 would significantly improve regional traffic flow, help recreational and commercial drivers avoid Birmingham area bottlenecks, and stimulate economic development in the two counties,” writes Perryman.

“My family and I believe the Coosa River Express is part of the dynamic new growth that is sweeping our state,” said James. “There’s one thing I’m sure of, growth occurs because of traffic and is absent where none exist.”

Tim James, Inc. received its first of two required licenses to build the Coosa River Express from the Talladega County Commission on January 13, 2020. The Shelby County Commission is expected to vote on its license in the future.

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Infrastructure

Terri Sewell, Doug Jones introduce bills to help families repair, replace wastewater systems

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, and Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Tuesday introduced companion bills in the House and Senate to help families pay for replacement or repair of aging wastewater systems. 

The bills are an expansion of work already done by both Alabama lawmakers to improve access to water and make fixes to aging wastewater infrastructure, which is a growing problem in rural communities. 

If signed into law, the Decentralized Wastewater Grant Act of 2020 would establish a grant program under the Clean Water Act to help low and moderate-income households connect their homes to wastewater infrastructure or repair or replace stand-alone septic systems. 

“Clean water and adequate wastewater infrastructure are basic human rights that shouldn’t be restricted to only those who can afford them. In Alabama and many rural areas across the country, failing septic tanks and inadequate, unsafe wastewater infrastructure are far too common and pose health, economic and environmental risks to our communities,” Sewell said in a statement. “The bill introduced today would establish a new source of funding through the EPA for families to install and maintain septic systems, building upon our longstanding commitment to ending America’s wastewater crisis once and for all.”

 “In rural communities across the country, including Alabama’s historically underserved Black Belt region, some families lack access to even basic wastewater systems,” Jones said in a statement. “This is a critical public health and safety issue, and we need an all hands on deck approach to solve this crisis. That’s why I’m proud to introduce legislation to build on the progress that we’ve made on the federal level to provide all Americans with access to the infrastructure and clean water they need.”

If approved, the act would provide grants to nonprofit organizations, which would then help eligible households pay for the needed repairs or replacements. 

 In the December 2019 government funding bill, Sewell and Jones worked to secure:

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  • $1.45 billion for rural water and waste program loans through the USDA, an increase of $50 million since 2019.  
  • $659 million for the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service Rural Water and Waste Disposal Program Account.
  • $545 million for USDA water and waste grants for clean and reliable drinking water systems.
  • $5 million for the Rural Septic Tank Access Act, which Sewell and Jones got included in the 2018 Farm Bill. The USDA program will be used to provide grants to improve rural decentralized water systems and water wells.
  • $5 million for a pilot program to provide grants to a regional wastewater consortium to fund technical assistance and construction of regional wastewater systems by engineering experts at University of Alabama, University of South Alabama and Auburn University.

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Economy

Sen. Shelby secures $274.3 million to complete Port of Mobile project

Staff

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U.S. Senator Richard Shelby on Monday announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has allocated $274,300,000 for the Port of Mobile in its Fiscal Year 2020 (FY2020) Work Plan, officially providing the resources to dredge Alabama’s premier port. The funding – which accounts for the full federal share of the project cost – will initiate and complete construction of the deepening and widening of the navigation channel. Following the required preliminary steps, construction is expected to begin toward the end of the year.

“Today marks a historic moment and victory for Mobile and the entire state of Alabama. Over the last decade, I have been advocating for the deepening and widening of the Port of Mobile,” said Senator Shelby. “The completion of this transformative project is expected to stem immeasurable economic growth and will position Alabama and the Gulf Coast region for success for generations to come. I am grateful to the Army Corps of Engineers for allocating the full federal share of the project cost and to the state of Alabama for providing the required matching funds. I look forward to its completion and the resulting impact.”

Jimmy Lyons, director and chief executive officer said. “Senator Richard Shelby clearly understands the economic value of seaports. His leadership in delivering an innovative and efficient program to deepen and widen Alabama’s only seaport is a game changer. We are extremely grateful for his leadership. This innovative program generates efficiencies in the Corps civil works program, affirms our project’s value to the state and the nation, and delivers the federal funding to complete our project much faster than anticipated.”

In December 2019, the FY2020 Energy and Water Development appropriations bill was signed into law as part of H.R.1865 and included a new regional dredge demonstration program for the central Gulf Coast. The program, administered by the Corps, was created to explore innovative ways of executing dredging in a logical and sequenced manner to seek efficiencies and cost savings and minimize disruptions to critical construction and maintenance dredging requirements across the nation. Today the Corps officially released its FY2020 Work Plan, announcing funding for the Port of Mobile and other qualifying projects.

The construction will include the expansion of the Port of Mobile from its current dimensions – 45 feet deep and 400 feet wide – by deepening the existing Bar, Bay, and River Channels by five feet to a project depth of 50 feet. This will include additional depths for wave allowances, advanced maintenance, and allowable overdepth for dredging. Following construction, the total depths of the Bar, Bay, and River Channels will be 56, 54, and 54 feet respectively. The project also includes widening the Bay Channel by 100 feet for three nautical miles.

The Port of Mobile is one of the nation’s fastest growing container seaports and has an economic impact of $22.4 billion. The harbor channel construction project, which will allow for more goods to be shipped and sold through Mobile, is financed by a split of 75 percent federal funds and 25 percent state-sponsored funds. Through federal legislation, Senator Shelby increased the federal government’s share of funding for deep draft ports from 50 percent to 75 percent.

 

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