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.
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.
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.
Alabama’s Black Belt lacks quality internet access, report finds
Twenty-two of 24 Black Belt counties are below the statewide average of 86 percent of the population who have access to high-speed internet, and two Black Belt Counties — Perry and Chocktaw — have no access at all.
During an online video briefing Monday on a report about a lack of internet access in Alabama’s Black Belt, University of Alabama student Brad Glover warned reporters that he could get kicked off the briefing at any moment.
That’s because he was talking during the video briefing by way of audio only, using his cell phone, as he does not have access to high-speed internet access at his Linden, Alabama, home in the Black Belt’s Marengo County.
The COVID-19 pandemic that sent students home to study online left many in the Black Belt and other rural parts of Alabama in the lurch, without access to the high-speed internet enjoyed by so many other Americans, according to the latest report in the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center’s Black Belt 2020 series.
The latest report, titled “Internet Access Disparities in Alabama & the Black Belt,” found that 22 of 24 Black Belt counties, as defined by the Education Policy Center, are below the statewide average of 86 percent of the population who have access to high-speed internet, and two Black Belt Counties — Perry and Chocktaw — have no access at all.
“It is still a terrible struggle for me to connect to get the things done that are required,” said Glover, who interned with the Education Policy Center.
Stephen Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center, said that in the 1930s, nine of ten rural homes lacked the electric service that urban American homes, by that point, had for 40 years.
“The Rural Electrification Act was passed to address this abject market failure,” Katsinas said. “Today, as the COVID pandemic has shown, access to high-speed internet is as essential to rural Alabama as the REA was in the 1930s. Alabama must directly address the market failures that exist today to bring high-speech internet to every rural Alabamian, so that our rural workforce can access the lifelong learning skills they need, and our rural businesses can compete globally.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has also spotlighted the need to expand the growing area of telemedicine.
Dr. Eric Wallace, medical director of Telehealth at UAB, told reporters during the briefing Monday that patients are largely doing telehealth from their homes, and explained that disparities in access to high-speed internet present a problem for them.
“Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, UAB has done approximately 230,000 telehealth visits, and 60 percent of those were done by video,” Wallace said.
“Forty percent are audio only, and why is audio only? It’s because we do not have broadband,” Wallace said. “So it’s not just broadband. It’s broadband. It’s tech literacy. Socioeconomics, to have a device in your home. It’s all of that.”
Wallace said that the coronavirus crisis has made clear that telemedicine is a “100 percent necessity” and that patient satisfaction studies make clear it’s not going anywhere.
The reasons for disparities in access to high-speed internet are myriad, explained Noel Keeney, one of the authors of the report and a graduate research assistant at the Education Policy Center.
Keeney noted a study by BroadbandNow that estimates there are 154 internet providers in Alabama, but there are 226,000 Alabamians living in counties without a single provider, and 632,000 in counties with just a single provider.
Even for those with access to internet providers, Keeney said that just approximately 44.4 percent of Alabamians have internet access at a cost of $60 monthly or below.
“If we really care about our rural areas, we need to make an investment, and it needs to cut off that cost at a very low rate,” Wallace said.
Katsnias said there’s a growing consensus on the part of Alabama’s political leaders that access to high-speed internet is an important issue, noting that Gov. Kay Ivey in March 2018, signed into law the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, which has given internet access to nearly 100,000 Alabama students.
“In March, Gov. Ivey awarded $9.5 million in broadband expansion grants, with a significant amount going to Black Belt communities,” the report reads. “This was followed by $5.1 million in additional grants in May.”
“The State of Alabama also allocated $100 million in federal CARES Act-related dollars for “equipment and service for broadband, wireless hot spots, satellite, fixed wireless, DSL, and cellular-on-wheels to increase access for K-12 students undergoing distance learning,” the report continues.
An additional $100 million in CARES Act funds were made available to facilitate virtual learning across Alabama’s K-12 schools, researchers wrote in the report, and another $72 million in federal aid went to the state’s colleges and universities.
Katsinas said however those federal funds are spent, the state still needs a long term plan for how to address the disparities in access to high-speed internet.
“We need a long term plan and we need to do what we can do immediately,” Katsinas said
Read more of the Education Policy Center’s reports in the “Black Belt 2020” series here.
ADEM director weighs-in on coal ash pond closures
APR spoke with ADEM Director Lance LeFleur to understand the process and how the public could be assured that steps taken would lead to a safe and effective outcome.
Over the next few weeks, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management will hold public hearings on the regulated closures of three coal combustion residuals storage sites, commonly referred to as coal ash ponds.
While ADEM receives high marks from federal regulators and businesses within Alabama, there is always a certain skepticism that surrounds environmental issues both on the left and the right side of the political spectrum.
Recently, APR spoke with ADEM Director Lance LeFleur to understand the process and how the public could be assured that steps taken would lead to a safe and effective outcome.
“I know that there’s skepticism about government,” LeFleur said. “And it’s healthy to have skepticism about government, state governments, local government, federal government. Skepticism is part of how we operate.” But LeFleur wants the public to know that ADEM’s first purpose is Alabamians’ health and safety.
“Our mission is to ensure for all Alabamians a safe, healthful and productive environment,” LeFleur said. “It’s a mission that ADEM and its nearly 600 employees take very seriously.”
LeFleur says while there are many competing sides to the issues that arise from coal ash disposal, ADEM must focus on “science and the laws.”
According to LeFleur, there are two primary issues that must be addressed when closing coal ash ponds: “avoid threats of spills into waterways or onto land, and preventing and cleaning up groundwater contamination from arsenic, mercury, lead and other hazardous elements that may leach from the coal ash.”
EPA does not classify coal residue as hazardous waste, but LeFleur says that all closures must ensure dangerous elements are not leaching down into the groundwater.
“I think there’s pretty much unanimous opinion that these coal ash ponds need to be closed; they need to be closed properly,” said LeFleur. “And we need to clean up the groundwater that’s in place.”
He says that the entire process will take decades, but the power companies have committed to safely closing the coal ash ponds. “We are dealing with power companies that are going to be around for a long time. And they, they are obligated to get the result right,” said LeFleur.
Alabama currently has 14 regulated CCR units at eight sites throughout the state. They are comprised of 10 unlined surface impoundments, one lined landfill, one lined surface impoundment all closed, and two lined landfills still in operation.
Public hearings are a significant part of the permit granting process, according to LeFleur, and ADEM’s website allows any individual to review every document and comment about a coal ash pond’s closing.
“You can see all of the comments that we received,” LeFleur said. “Every issue raised during the comment period and written response to comments are available.” ADEM’s website also includes the closure plans as well as all correspondence between agency and utility companies.
According to ADEM, the purpose of these hearings is to allow the public, including nearby residents, environmental groups, and others, opportunities to weigh in on the proposed permits.
“This past summer, Alabama Power, TVA, and PowerSouth held informational meetings in the communities where their affected plants are located to explain their proposed groundwater cleanup plan —including the CCR unit closure component— and answer residents’ questions,” said LeFleur.
Closing a unit requires months of planning with ADEM engineers to make sure all procedures are followed correctly. Federal rules for closing CCRs have only been around since April 2015, when EPA released final measures for management and disposal of CCRs from electric utilities. In 2018, ADEM issued its state CCR rule, which closely tracks the federal regulations.
Under both Presidents Obama and Trump, the EPA has allowed for coal ash sites to be closed by two methods — closure in place and by removal.
Alabama’s utilities have chosen the cap in place method. Some environmental groups prefer removal. But estimates say that moving CCRs from Alabama Power’s Plant Barry would take around 30 years with trucks leaving the site every six minutes.
“Regardless of which method of closure is used, that process will take a couple of years to accomplish at these sites,” said LeFleur. “If it’s kept in place, the material has been de-watered then pushed together to create a smaller footprint, and then that will be covered with an impervious cover.”
The objective, according to ADEM, is to protect the groundwater and the environment from pollution.
Power providers and environmentalists seem to agree there isn’t a perfect solution. Public hearings are to ensure that community voices and those of environmentalists are heard.
“This entire process is designed to stop contamination to groundwater and future contamination to groundwater; those are the most important facts now,” said LeFleur. “There are always political issues, you know, at least two sides, and sometimes there’s three, four or five sides. We focus on science and the laws. That’s what we do.”
While ADEM has its critics, it receives a high rating from the EPA, and an annual survey by the Alabama Department of Commerce finds that it gets top marks from business and industry in the state.
ADEM’s first public hearing on coal ash permits will be held Tuesday, Oct. 20, for Alabama Power’s Miller Steam Plant in west Jefferson County. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the West Jefferson Town Hall. Other upcoming hearings are Thursday, Oct. 22, for Plant Greene County located in Greene County and Oct. 29 for Plant Gadsden in Etowah County.
USDA awards $3 million in grants for Alabama distance learning, telemedicine infrastructure
Alabama has been awarded six projects through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue this week announced that the USDA is investing $72 million in grants to help rural residents gain access to health care and educational opportunities.
These investments, the department says, will benefit more than 12 million rural residents across the country.
Perdue said Wednesday that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for expanded broadband as many employees are working from home and need reliable internet service.
Improved Internet services will also impact health care through telemedicine.
“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is right now as our nation manages the coronavirus emergency,” Perdue said. “Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children and remote business operations all require access to broadband. I am so proud of our rural communities who have been working day in and day out, just like they always do, producing the food and fiber America depends on.”
Alabama has been awarded six projects through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program.
“I look at investing in broadband as a critical priority, especially in today’s environment,” said USDA Rural Development State Director for Alabama Chris Beeker. “Having access to broadband is vital and no longer a luxury, but rather a fundamental need of rural Alabamians because it creates opportunities for the development of the economy, health care centers and educational institutions that wouldn’t otherwise be available.”
The USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program helps health care and education institutions buy the equipment and software necessary to deploy distance-learning and telemedicine services to rural residents.
The Clay County School District will use a $304,801 distance learning grant to establish a distance learning network connecting the Clay County Hospital and Clay County Board of Education.
Clay County Schools will utilize this project to bolster STEM programs through the addition of distance learning Advanced Placement and Dual Enrollment courses.
Clay County Hospital will use this partnership to connect to teletherapy providers for mental health and drug counseling services, thereby increasing the culpability of school district, hospital and community.
This project will raise the educational outcomes for all students providing much necessary STEM course offerings in the project sites and stimulate growth in the project community by increasing practitioner involvement in all areas of STEM education and health services, including real-world connections to our current curricula and the opportunity to integrate tele-education in areas not currently served through our health services programs.
The Central North Alabama Health Services will use a $173,818 telemedicine grant to help deliver an interactive digital audio-visual communication platform across five health centers in northern Alabama.
Distance learning will be focused on a health and wellness curriculum including concentrations in nursing assistant and opiate substance treatment and counseling. Equipment will include interactive telehealth carts that feature video codec, display, audio system and camera installed on a rolling base that contains an external battery; some will contain peripheral examination equipment. A large conference monitor will also be placed at all sites for group conferencing.
The Dale County Board of Education will use a $716,114 distance learning grant to allow the Dale County Board of Education to launch a new Distance Learning project that will serve seven schools, a career and technical campus and an alternative school in rural Dale County.
Interactive video conferencing will be used to deliver STEM-focused, synchronous educational content to participating end users.
The Franklin Primary Health Center will use a $610,927 telemedicine grant to connect health center hubs located in Mobile, Alabama, with rural end-user medical and dental sites. The new connectivity will provide real-time audio and visual interactions with expert medical and behavioral specialists for the care of rural patients.
The services will include the treatment of substance abuse disorders. The project will deploy interactive video conferencing equipment required for medical consultations and provide training in the use of other project equipment.
This, along with telehealth carts with integrated codec, camera, microphone, monitors and peripheral patient examination devices, will assist specialists to provide real-time interactive telehealth visits.
The Macon County School District will use a $469,859 distance learning grant to assist the Macon County School District to purchase interactive video conferencing equipment. The equipment will provide distance learning services for high school and middle school students.
This project will enable the district to deliver new courses at Macon’s high schools and middle school by connecting and sharing teachers across schools. This will position the district to provide more electives, more core courses and more opportunities for advanced courses for middle school students.
The Madison County Board of Education will use a $775,058 distance learning grant to allow the Madison County School District to expand STEM education augmented curriculum and virtual field trip opportunities using distance learning technology. This expansion will help to enhance career and college readiness for every school within the district.
Twenty-eight sites will connect with each other to share curriculum and improve learning and engagement for their students. This project will help to provide equal access to educational opportunities throughout the schools served within Madison County.
To learn more about investment resources for rural areas, interested parties should contact their USDA Rural Development state office.
The USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements, business development, housing, community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care and high-speed internet access in rural areas.
Report: Transitioning to electric vehicles could save Alabama millions in health costs
Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.
Alabama could save $431 million in public health costs per year by 2050, if the state shifted to an electric transportation sector between now and then, according to a new study by the American Lung Association.
Such a transition would reduce other health-related issues, said the organization, which used data on pollution from vehicles and from oil refineries to calculate its findings.
Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.
The transportation sector is one of the main contributors to air pollution and climate change, said William Barrett, the association’s director of advocacy for clean air and the study’s author.
“We have the technology to transition to cleaner cars, trucks and buses, and by taking that step we can prepare Alabama for the future while also seeing the health and economic benefits forecasted in ‘The Road to Clean Air,’” Barrett said. “Especially as our state faces the impacts of climate change, such as extreme storms, this is a powerful and practical opportunity to take action to improve our economy, our health and our future.”
Trading combustion-powered vehicles for electric ones could result in $11.3 billion in avoided health costs across southern states by mid-century, the report estimated, and prevent roughly 1,000 premature deaths.
Nationally, Americans stand to save $72 billion in health costs and $113 billion in avoided climate change impacts, the ALA said.
The path to that future depends on leaders factoring public health effects into decisions about transportation, Barrett said.
That involves steps like pursuing electric vehicle fleets when purchasing decisions are being made and supporting the creation of enough charging stations along highways, roads and at truck stops.
Investing in that infrastructure can drive wider economic benefits, Barrett said. He cited California’s increased manufacturing of electric vehicles.
Tesla is the most well-known producer that has located there, but Barrett said that makers of trucks and buses have also chosen to locate their facilities in the state.