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Infrastructure

Political operatives, opportunist and politicos torch bridge project

Bill Britt

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No reporter has done more to chronicle the story of the Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project than al.com’s John Sharp. Recently, he penned a piece entitled “How the I-10 project was killed,” which focuses on the public battle that led to the project’s demise.

Interspersed in the various reports on the bridge debacle are statements from political operatives and opportunists who worked to undermine the project. Along the way, those politicos who vowed to move the area forward caved to political pressure abandoning their previous support of the bridge project.

State Auditor Jim Zeigler was the most visible face of the opposition. But there was also South Alabama political operative Jon Gray and Dean Young, a campaign strategist who worked on Roy Moore’s failed 2017 U.S. Senate bid.

For over 20 years, the I-10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project has been a topic of heated discussion in Baldwin and Mobile Counties. Two years ago, it seemed as if the project was on track to become a reality. At the time, the bridge was estimated to cost between $800 million to $1.8 billion, but that figure wasn’t written in stone as ALDOT Director John Cooper said in 2017.

At the time, a majority of the political leaders in the area agreed that a toll would be needed to pay for the bridge.

Then-Baldwin County Commission Chairman Chris Elliott said in 2017, that he agreed with Cooper that tolls were “the right direction.” Two years later, Elliot, now a state senator, turned against the bridge he had once supported. Elliot is just one example of the many politicos who were for the bridge before they were against it.

In its last estimation, the River Bridge and Bayway would cost $2.1 billion, some $300 million over the initial estimates. But even that figure was never finalized because the project was effectively killed with a vote by the Eastern Shore MPO last month. Approval by the Mobile and Eastern Shore MPO was needed before ALDOT could receive a final bid which would have determined the cost of construction as well as the toll which was estimated between three and six dollars.

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Like every political operation, a narrative must be established to stir support or opposition.

In this case, the opponents focused on the possibility of a $6 toll and the burgeoning expense of the bridge.

The self-appointed face of the resistance was Zeigler, who is well-known for his political activism, positioning himself as a waste cutter, an anti-tax advocate, toll hunter and many other things that bring him public attention.

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As auditor, Zeigler has repeatedly used state resources and personnel to promote his various activities unrelated to his official duties — the bridge is only the latest. His personal assistant, who is a state employee, has sent many emails for these separate activities using state computers and other resources.

Arguably, Zeigler has spent more time working for causes with no relationship to his elected duties, which pays him around $80,000 annually plus benefits.

Shortly before joining the anti-toll movement, Zeigler surrendered his law license. He says it was voluntary, but others have cast doubts on his assertion.

A report by NBC 15 indicates Zeigler was embroiled in a legal issue pertaining to an elderly client and that the incident may have led to him surrendering his license. Zeigler disputed the claim.

Zeigler has publicly claimed credit for launching the Facebook group “Block the Mobile BayWay Toll.” However, in a conversation with APR, he said he didn’t start the group; instead, he climbed on board the movement in its early stages.

Who founded the Facebook page may be insignificant, but its supremacy in the fight against the toll bridge is not in dispute.

The Facebook group, “Block the Mobile BayWay Toll,” was created on May 12, 2019, it changed its name to “Block the Mobile Bayway Toll” on June 13, 2019.  It appears the name was changed to correct a capitalization error.

As of last week, it had 55,139 members and grew by 10,000 plus members in the previous 30 days.

Along with residents from Alabama, it also boasts members from Magetan, Jawa Timur, Indonesia, North Dakota and other places outside of the state.

To grow from a few members to over 55,000 in just over a year is almost unheard of on Facebook.

As of 2017, Mobile County had a population of 413,955, while Baldwin counted 212,628 for a total of more than 600,000 residents.

Even if all the members were from the two counties, it would be less than 10 percent of the population but enough to frighten a local politician.

A meeting of anti-toll advocates sponsored by the Common Sense Campaign TEA Party led by Lou Campomenosi attracted some 150 attendees with about the same number turned away due to the venue’s small seating capacity. Of the over 50,000 members of the “Block the Mobile Bayway Toll,” only a small fraction showed up for the gathering.

Campomenosi, who moderated the event, was listed as an administrator on the “Block the Mobile Bayway Toll” Facebook group. He is no longer numbered among the administrators.

Zeigler claims his opposition group is “well-funded,” but has also said it is a grassroots movement. Authentic grassroots campaigns are generally cash poor and people rich, but Zeigler would have people believe that his organization is both.

When asked how the opposition was well funded, Zeigler pointedly failed to respond.

The No Tolls Political Action Committee created on Go Fund Me by Zeigler has raised $5,289 from 130 donors since its inception in Aug. 9, 2019.

Joining Zeigler in his efforts to derail the toll bridge is political operative Gray who became a player in the bridge story; first as a consultant for ALDOT and then a harsh critic of the project. Gray is quoted in several news stories about the bridge.

For almost four years, Gray was a contract consultant at ALDOT. In just over three years, ALDOT paid Gray around $1.5 million according to state records. He lost his contract after he worked on Scott Dawson’s unsuccessful gubernatorial challenge to unseat Gov. Kay Ivey.

Gray, according to two individuals close to him, has a consulting agreement with Mobile-based Volkert Engineering who lost a contract on the bridge to its rival, Thompson Engineering.

Perry Hand until recently was CEO and chairman of the board at Volkert. Hand is known in many political circles for his failed attempt to keep Billy Canary atop the Business Council of Alabama. A battle Hand would eventually lose.

Toward the end of the bridge fight, Young, a political fixture in South Alabama, came forward with a poll which he said was self-financed. Young’s poll showed that 77 percent of registered voters in Mobile and Baldwin counties did not support the toll plan. WT&S conducted the survey according to Young.

The Athens, Alabama-based WT&S is led by John Wahl who was also a pollster for Moore’s last senate campaign. In conjunction with Breitbart News, WT&S conducted a poll that showed Moore leading Doug Jones, the eventual winner, by six points.

Wahl and Young’s paths crossed during Moore’s Senate bid as did Wahl and Zeigler during a fight over raising taxes to support Athens city schools.

Zeigler joined Wahl in 2015, to rage against an Athens ballot measure to finance public works projects to improve public education in the city. Wahl and Zeigler were successful in defeating the measure.

Both Zeigler and Gray received considerable press coverage after bridge meetings in Baldwin and Mobile Counties.

After the Mobile County MPO temporarily removed the interstate bridge project from the list of local transportation priorities, Zeigler said, “If we had not formed up this group [Block the Mobile Bayway Toll] and got organized with these 52,000 people, this program with the toll would’ve slid through and with very little notice.”

At the same hearing, Gray predicted that the meeting of the Eastern Shores MPO would “nail the coffin,” on the bridge project. Gray was right in his prediction.

The reason the “the toll would’ve slid through and with very little notice,” as Zeigler stated is because the state Legislature, the Baldwin and Mobile County delegation and others in the area were for the toll bridge.

For two years, some of the same people who helped kill the bridge lobbied U.S. Senator Richard Shelby to find federal funding for the project which he accomplished.

Then-Baldwin County Commissioner Elliot was part of the delegation that sought Shelby’s help. As part of that body, Elliott was involved in the planning for the I-10 bridge including the discussion to toll. Elliott again is merely an example of those who would work to build the bridge and then abandon the project.

According to a report by Fox10, Elliott knew that the federal match would be much less than for previous projects and supported a toll to make up the difference.

“It used to be an 80/20 federal to state match, and now we have almost reversed that to be a 20/80,” Elliott said. “The local money in the 80 percent split would come from bonds, some state money, private investor money, and tolls.”

Gov. Kay Ivey has declared the I-10 bridge dead, and by all accounts, it will be years if not a decade or more before another opportunity arises like the one Zeigler and his fellow travelers destroyed.

Even now Zeigler claims he will keep the “Block the Mobile Bayway Toll” Facebook group alive to fight on other fronts.

He is now comparing the toll challenge to the Civil Rights movement.

“The people rose up, and I’ve never seen anything like it since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s,” Zeigler said. “I wasn’t involved in that, but I was a young student watching it.”

What was nearly 25 years in the making was torched by a few individuals who convinced a handful of politicians to run scared rather than work toward a solution in the best interest of their constituents.

 

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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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