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.
“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.
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.)