Opponents of a plan to pay for a new Mobile River bridge with tolls picked up an important ally Monday – Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth.
The lieutenant governor, in a public break with Gov. Kay Ivey, tweeted his opposition to the plan.
“A state that built the rockets that sent men to the moon should be able to find a way to build a bridge without extorting the citizens it seeks to serve,” he wrote.
A state that built the rockets that sent men to the moon should be able to find a way to build a bridge without extorting the citizens it seeks to serve.#LtGov #MobileRiverBridge pic.twitter.com/hTCl3ROhPA— Will Ainsworth (@willainsworthAL) August 19, 2019
In addition to Ainsworth, Alabama President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston), told Yellowhammer News that local residents should decide whether to have tolls.
Ainsworth is not just the highest-profile politician to come out against the tolling plan. He also is a member of the group that has ultimate power over the project, the Alabama Toll Road, Bridge, and Tunnel Authority. That group will convene in Montgomery on Oct. 7 to discuss the Mobile plan.
The plan outlined by the Alabama Department of Transportation calls for a $2.1 billion project to construct a new, six-lane bridge over the Mobile River and a new, expanded Bayway. The Bayway would be eight lanes and rise significantly higher above Mobile Bay in order to protect against storm surge.
By far the most controversial element is the cost to drivers’ pocketbooks. With little federal money, state officials maintain they cannot pay for the project without tolls. The state’s plan calls for a maximum toll of $6 for a one-way trip across the entire route, regardless of whether drivers opt for the new bridge or the existing Wallace Tunnel.
The toll rate would be less to use portions of the crossing. A driver starting in Daphne and exiting onto the Causeway, for instance, would pay $2.50. The state also plans an “ALGO” pass costing $90 per month that would allow unlimited access to the Bayway and bridge.
Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for Ivey, did not directly respond to a question about Ainsworth’s announcement. But she wrote in an email to FOX10 News that the governor remains open to toll alternatives.
“It is important to understand that she called a meeting of the Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority for people to present alternative options to the current toll cost proposal,” she wrote. “Thus far, we have heard concerns about tolls; now, we need to hear reasonable solutions.”
Maiola reiterated the governor’s position that the project “is vital for the reasons of commerce, efficiency and public safety” and has been in the planning states for a quarter-century.
Ainsworth noted in a video posted with his tweet that a family with two parents commuting across Mobile Bay would pay almost $2,200 a year even with the discounted monthly pass.
“Quite frankly, I found it to violate every conservative belief and principle that I hold,” he said.
Ainsworth also knocked the plan to impose the toll on the exiting Wallace Tunnel.
“The plan to toll the Wallace Tunnel, which has been completely paid off and toll-free for decades makes an already-outrageous situation even worse,” he said. “Families that cannot afford to pay the tolls will be forced to drive miles out of the way, which raises their already-high fuel cost or forces them to be held hostage in their home county because of simple economics.”
Despite Ainsworth’s announcement, the governor appears to have a firm lock on the toll authority, which she chairs and includes ALDOT Director John Cooper along with three appointees who serve at the governor’s pleasure.
“The governor has stacked the toll authority,” said state Auditor Jim Zeigler, who has helped lead opposition to plan. “She has five votes. Other politicians have four votes. The citizens have no votes. Mobile County has not votes. It’s a sad situation.”
Still, Zeigler told FOX10 News, Ainsworth’s announcement is the “second breakthrough” in the campaign against tolls. The first, he said, came Aug. 1 when a state legislative committee put a 90-day hold a legal services contract related to the bridge and Bayway project.
The Alabama Contract Review Permanent Legislative Oversight Committee has no power to block the contract permanently or stop the project. But Zeigler said it was a strong signal.
“That was the first indication that our message is getting through in Montgomery,” he said.