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Infrastructure

Ivey: “There is no pathway forward” for Mobile River Bridge and Bayway replacement

Brandon Moseley

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On Wednesday, local Baldwin County elected officials voted “effectively” to kill the Mobile River Bridge project. The Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) met to vote on its Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), which establishes the area’s transportation priorities from 2020 to 2023.

For a decade, Mobile and Baldwin County officials have been asking federal and state officials for an Interstate 10 bridge over the Mobile River to relieve traffic congestion for motorists going back and forth between the two coastal counties. Currently I-10 drops into the Wallace Tunnels to go under the Mobile River.

On Wednesday the Eastern Shores MPO voted 8 to 1 to remove the controversial Mobile River Bridge and Bayway replacement project from their TIP priority list. The TIP list is important; because no federal funds can lawfully be spent on a project that local governments do not want. Since ALDOT receives federal matching dollars, removing the project from Baldwin County’s TIP project is a mortal blow for the project.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) had made the Mobile River Bridge a top priority of her administration. The Governor declared the project “dead.”

“With the action taken today, there is no pathway forward, and this project is dead,” Gov. Ivey said. “Moreover, without a project, there is no need for a meeting on October 7. I am thereby cancelling the Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority meeting.”

The project was already on life support after the Mobile MPO took it off of their TIP list last week temporarily until after the Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority meeting in October. The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) plan was to finance the $2.1 billion public works project by tolling the users.

In May just about every public official in SW Alabama was for the bridge. After ALDOT revealed their newer, bigger, fancier, far more costly bridge plan, and the public, who was paying for this modern engineering marvel, weighed in just about every public official in SW Alabama and statewide was opposed to the bridge if it were paid for with tolls.

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ALDOT Director John Cooper famously told residents and politicians alike that if there was not tolls there would be no bridge. The SW Alabama public, and the people they elect, overwhelmingly chose no bridge over paying a six one way toll. Even ALDOT’s later proposal of unlimited bridge usage for $90 a month prepaid did nothing to put out the firestorm of public outrage.

The Tea Party led a coalition that grew quickly to include the Baldwin County Democratic Party, the Alabama Libertarian Party, the entire Mobile County legislative delegation, every congressional candidate, the Baldwin County Mayors, County Commissioners, every U.S. Senate candidate, and included public officials who have been fighting for a Mobile River Bridge for the last decade. The public did not want a toll bridge and ALDOT had no other way to fund this project.

Many Mobile County residents work in stores, motels, and restaurants in the booming Eastern Shores area of Baldwin County, and they did not want to pay the $6 one-way two to four times a day. They pressured their Mobile elected officials on the MPO to stop the project. Last week the Mobile MPO removed the bridge from their TIP list until after October 7; however as any casual observer of I-10 traffic patterns already knows, far more Baldwin County residents go to work in Mobile County than the other way around and Baldwin County has its own metropolitan planning organization, the Eastern Shores MPO.

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While tolling the Mobile River Bridge was unpopular in Mobile County, the plan was despised by Baldwin County residents.

Every local Baldwin County elected official on the Eastern Shores MPO voted in favor of removing the bridge and Bayway from the TIP list. The only vote against removing the bridge from the came from an engineer employed by ALDOT.

Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth (R) is one of nine members on the Alabama Toll Road, Bridge, and Tunnel Authority. Ainsworth had already announced that he was voting against the plan if it ever made it to the Toll Authority.

“Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood and the members of the Eastern Shore MPO should be commended for listening to the citizens they represent, giving voice to their concerns, and voting to end the ill-conceived and fatally-flawed toll bridge project connecting Baldwin and Mobile counties,” Ainsworth said in a statement. “The strong stand taken by the MPO today should reaffirm all citizens’ belief in representative government and the power of public opinion.”

The project appeared to be moving full steam ahead with no problems at all for the first five months of this year. The legislature passed the largest gas tax in state history to give ALDOT another $310 million a year as well as special legislation modernizing the toll authority, allowing ALDOT to enter into public private partnerships (P3s) for infrastructure projects, expanding tax breaks for companies operating in Opportunity Zones (the Mobile River Bridge is in an O-Zone), and giving private toll operators the authority to suspend a motorist’s driving privileges if they don’t pay their toll bill sailed through the legislature with bipartisan support led by members of the Baldwin and Mobile legislative delegations.

While there was no significant opposition in the legislature; the reporting by the Alabama Political Reporter (and other outlets) about the details of the legislation was noticed in South Alabama by grassroots activists, the general public, and political operatives alike.

State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) announced his opposition to the plan and formed a Facebook group committed to the idea that the bridge and the existing Wallace Tunnels should not be tolled, even if that means the project is not built.

“We started this campaign against the Alabama toll bridge on May 12 with one member – me,” Zeigler said in a statement. “At that time, people told me, “You’re wasting your time. This is a done deal. There’s nothing you can do.”

“Fortunately, I did not believe that we were helpless and hopeless,” the popular State Auditor said. “Also, our 54,000 new members did not believe we were hopeless. Now, the done deal is a dead deal.”

Powerful corporations and business interests had been pushing for the bridge for years to get cargo in and out of the Port of Mobile, which is being expanded with an expensive deeper wider shipping channel to handle large ships. Every elected official had voiced support for the bridge back when the cost was just $800 million a year and the tolls were going to be $2 or less. Legislators were told that the average motorist spends more money on fuel stuck in I-10 traffic than the tolls would have cost so would save money.

After the 2019 legislative session was over, ALDOT unveiled a new proposal. Not the $800 million bridge and Bayway widening presented to legislators before; but a taller larger bridge with a viewing platform, bike lanes, and a total Bayway replacement. The $2.1 billion project would be paid for with $6 tolls for the next 55 years. The existing Wallace Tunnels would also be tolled, and three corporate conglomerates would bid on the contract to build the costly structure, the largest of its kind in North America, and collect the toll revenue. An already skeptical public erupted and popular support for the bridge evaporated almost overnight. Elected officials who had fought for the project, in some cases for years, now became outspoken public opponents as Zeigler’s growing bipartisan grassroots opposition group grew exponentially over the summer. A later ALDOT proposal to cap total toll costs for residents at $90 a month per vehicle did little to satisfy opponents.

On Tuesday the governor sent a letter to the Baldwin County Commissioners and Mayors offering to work with them and to look for additional funding to try to build the bridge with reduced or no tolling if that was possible. The Governor told APR that the bridge was critical for the infrastructure of the state.

“The Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project is critical – not only to Mobile and Baldwin Counties, but the entire Gulf Coast Region – and would be important for the continued growth of all of Alabama,” Ivey told APR hours before the meeting. “The Eastern Shore MPO’s decision today will be to continue exploring all options to move this project forward. My Administration’s goal is to find an agreed-upon plan that both the Mobile and Eastern Shore MPOs can approve. Their support is essential to create a pathway to continue the procurement process.”

Toll bridge opponents had the momentum and the attention of their elected officials and they were not interested in any compromise.

“We reject this fake compromise,” Zeigler said of the Governor’s offer to negotiate prior to the meeting. “It does nothing toward a No Toll option. On behalf of our 54,000 members, we ask the Eastern Shore MPO to stay strong and remove the toll plan from the TIP plan at the 2 p.m. meeting in Fairhope.”

After a four hour and twenty minute MPO meeting filled with toll opponents, the Eastern Shores MPO agreed with the protestors and voted to kill the bridge.

The question today is what happens next?

“We are starting a ‘Lazarus Project’ to make sure that the toll scheme does not rise again,” Zeigler said.

State Representative Matt Simpson (R-Mobile) told Capital Journal’s Don Daly that ALDOT should rethink the project and scale it back to $700 or $800 million without a Bayway replacement and wait to see what Congress and Trump or the new President does on infrastructure in 2021.

“The fact remains, however, that Alabama’s Gulf Coast region is experiencing explosive population growth, and traffic congestion throughout the area will only worsen with time,” Ainsworth said. “I urge Director Cooper and his ALDOT staff to go back to the drawing board and come back with a more sensible and scaled down bridge proposal that releases traffic pressure without the need for tolling the hardworking residents of our state.”

Ivey said simply, “There is no pathway forward.”

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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

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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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