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Montgomery judge blocks new state bridge, but appeal looms

ALDOT will likely ask the ALSC to stay the injunction to allow crews to resume construction.

Intercoastal Waterway bridge rendering in Baldwin County. ALDOT
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In a case destined to be determined by the Alabama Supreme Court, a Montgomery judge on Wednesday halted work on a new bridge across the Intercoastal Waterway in Baldwin County and ruled the Alabama Department of Transportation commissioner had acted in bad faith while negotiating the project.

ALDOT strongly disagreed with the court’s finding in the preliminary injunction and cited its coming appeal.

“We are disappointed in the decision because it’s clear that a new, free bridge is needed to help alleviate traffic congestion and offer a new evacuation option to residents and visitors to Alabama’s Gulf Coast,” said ALDOT spokesperson Tony Harris. “Years of negotiations with the private toll bridge company failed to deliver a solution. The public benefit of a new, free bridge should outweigh the interests of the private toll bridge company. ALDOT will file a notice of appeal with the Alabama Supreme Court.”

The ruling from Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Jimmy Pool was actually his signature on two proposed motions from the plaintiff, the Baldwin County Bridge Company (BCBC), and a denial of several motions filed by ALDOT and commissioner John Cooper.

The motions signed by Pool contained allegations that Cooper negotiated in a manner meant to put BCBC out of business, apparently by deciding to move forward with a new, free-access bridge to be constructed just a mile away from BCBC’s privately owned toll bridge near The Wharf in Orange Beach.

ALDOT argued vigorously against such characterizations and cited a nearly 200 year old ruling from the United States Supreme Court.

According to a post-hearing brief filed by ALDOT, the heart of the matter is a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge, 36 U.S. 420 (1837).

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“In a 5-to-2 decision, the Court held that the state had not entered a contract that prohibited the construction of another bridge on the river at a later date. The Court held that the legislature neither gave exclusive control over the waters of the river nor invaded corporate privilege by interfering with the company’s profit-making ability. In balancing the rights of private property against the need for economic development, the Court found that the community interest in creating new channels of travel and trade had priority,” according to facts provided at Oyez.

In its filing, similar to the Warren Bridge case, the defendant argues: “There is no statute, regulation, ordinance, deed, or agreement between BCBC and the State of Alabama, ALDOT, Director Cooper or otherwise that provides a guarantee of exclusivity, or that no other bridges will be built across the Intracoastal Waterway in the future.”

Cooper has previously said that offering state citizens a free alternative and easing the almost constant congestion on Route 59 leading to Alabama’s beaches was a top priority. But the price of the new project — now at more than $100 million — has been criticized. And Orange Beach officials are worried that it could cut into a profitable agreement the city has with BCBC.

At one point, however, all city and county officials in the Baldwin area had voiced public support for the new, free-access bridge proposed by ALDOT.

During the negotiations, according to trial testimony and court filings, ALDOT and BCBC discussed adding additional lanes to the toll bridge and offering Baldwin County residents free use. During his testimony, Cooper classified those proposals “as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”

BCBC attorney Joe Espy heralded Judge Pool’s injunction as a victory for the law and Alabamians, 

“Today is a victory for the rule of law and the citizens of Alabama,” said BCBC attorney Espy. 

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Since the outset of the proceeding,  speculations arose about trying the case in Democrat-leaning Montgomery County – well away from the site of the project of the dispute in Republican stronghold Baldwin County.

The case was likely always destined for the Alabama Supreme Court.

Pool filed the motions just before lunch on Wednesday, and ALDOT filed a motion to appeal with the state Supreme Court before the day ended.

ALDOT will likely ask the ALSC to stay Pool’s injunction on work on the new bridge, allowing crews to resume construction.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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