The fight over the West Alabama Corridor project continues on.
State lawmakers and officials from the Alabama Department of Transportation met on Wednesday to discuss lawmakers’ concerns and the recent holds placed on ALDOT contracts, but little progress was made.
“ALDOT was pleased to meet with three members of the Contract Review Committee Wednesday morning to discuss the importance of the West Alabama Highway and to answer their questions,” read a statement from ALDOT’s chief of communications and government relations, Tony Harris. “We are prepared to continue discussions and provide any information we can. The West Alabama Highway has strong support as it will open up economic development opportunities and connect Alabamians in this under-served part of the state to jobs, medical care and other necessities.”
During last week’s Alabama Legislature Contract Review Committee meeting, Rep. Chris Elliott put a hold on contracts related to the project, questioning the costs and financing plan. Elliott, and a handful of other Republican lawmakers, have questioned the cost of the project and suggested that the funds could be better spent on other projects.
“The major concern remains that the estimated price seems to have doubled and ALDOT intends to borrow against future rebuild Alabama gas tax dollars to pay for this project,” Elliott said in a statement to APR. “This would likely result in maxing out gas tax dollars available to be bonded under the rebuild statute on just one project. My colleagues and I are very concerned about this. ALDOT did not bring anyone to the meeting that was able to discuss project financing. The contract remains on hold until subsequent meetings are held to discuss the details of the project’s financing scheme.”
While Elliott and his “colleagues” have criticized many aspects of the project, from costs to the overall need, their most often cited cause for concern is the financing plan, which they say will max out the state’s borrowing capacity. To pay for the project, ALDOT plans to borrow against future gas tax revenues – a financing plan that is fairly common – and there has been no evidence provided that it would prevent the state from borrowing for future projects.
The West Alabama Highway, which the project funds, would expand and improve Highways 69 and 43 between Thomasville and Tuscaloosa, providing rare substantial infrastructure improvements for a large swath of often-neglected counties, including Blackbelt counties, and help lure industry to a portion of the state that’s sorely lacking.
In response to Elliott’s block on West Alabama Corridor contracts, Rep. Chris England, whose district includes Tuscaloosa, placed a hold on all ALDOT contracts, effectively bringing numerous projects around the state to a halt – or at least a temporary hold – for the next 45 days. (Contract Review Committee members cannot kill contracts or block them indefinitely. At most, they can require state agencies to provide more information and hold contracts for up to 45 days.)
“After speaking with ALDOT officials, I am comfortable that they are doing their due diligence on this project, have created options for the project in the event that Federal funds become available, and that the West Alabama Corridor project will not max out available gas tax dollars for the foreseeable future,” England said in a statement to APR. “What’s going on with the Western Corridor project is no different than what’s happening with every road project going on in Alabama. Costs have doubled for the Bay Bridge project and the I-65 project as well. For some reason, rising costs and bonding money has become an issue with only one project.
“I also want to stress that folks in West Alabama pay the gas tax too. West Alabamians are essentially being told that while we will use your tax dollars to fund projects in other parts of the start, that a project in your area is not worth the investment.”
England said he finds the issues with the West Alabama project ironic, given the state’s current fight over redistricting, and specifically, communities of interest.
“The West Alabama Corridor project is essentially why Rebuild Alabama was created,” he said. “For every other project, it costs what it costs. For West Alabama and specifically the Black Belt, now we want to start counting pennies. Because of redistricting, there has been this talk about communities of interest. You know what really makes the black belt a community of interest? It’s always the same community whose interests are either neglected, ignored, or told to wait because other areas of the state are deemed more important. It seems that the same thing is going on with this West Alabama Corridor project.”