MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Throughout the last five months, Alabama officials have not wavered from their insistence that a proposed new bridge cannot be built without tolls.
That stance has generated a great deal of opposition, from elected officials in southwest Alabama to regular folks weary about how expensive their daily commuting might become.
FOX10 News pressed ALDOT Director John Cooper a number of ideas for alternatives. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
FOX10 News: Why not construct just a new bridge but drop the plan to build a new, elevated Bayway, which would cut the cost roughly in half?
Cooper: “That’s a good point and an interesting point. In the end, where everybody has come down, is that the rule (of the federal government) requires that if a new bridge structure is built, it will be built above the 100-year storm surge level.
“While you can debate the issue of whether you should raise the Bayway, no one is prepared to go forward without raising the Bayway because that is what the rule says you should do.”
FOX10 News: Why did the state choose to partner with a private company, which will profit off of the project, rather than borrow the money directly?
Cooper: “The plain truth is, we don’t have the financial capability to build this project without some assistance. A second truth is that a private party makes a contribution in terms of design, in terms of minimizing the cost of building the project. A third truth is that they add to the expertise to operate the project.
“And most people across the country have found that these firms who concentrate in this area can operate these facilities better and more cheaply than public entities that do not do this as a matter of routine.”
FOX10 News: Proposals are due in December, and the state hopes to pick from the three competing bids in March. How will that decision be made?
Cooper: “One aspect of the bid will be the cost of the bridge. Another aspect will be the timing they’re willing to commit to. Another aspect will be the tolling levels they’re willing to commit to as time moves forward, and the procedure they’re willing to commit to to operate the bridge.”
FOX10 News: Has the state considered financing the project through an infrastructure bank, a mechanism some states have used for big projects?
Cooper: “I’m not aware of any serious consideration of an infrastructure bank. We do not have an infrastructure bank. Someone would have to fund that.”
Many south Alabama residents have seen that ALDOT is rebuilding bridges on Interstate 59/20 in Birmingham without resorting to tolls and feel they are getting the short end of the stick.
Cooper: “I don’t believe you’re getting the short end of the stick. I think there’s a good bit of misunderstanding about that. But let’s just drop to the nub of that math. We’re spending about $800 million to rebuild a portion of the interstate in Birmingham that has 160,000 vehicles a day.
“We expect to spend several hundred million – we do not know the precise number – but several hundred million on this project, which has 75,000 vehicles a day on it … There are no tolls for that project (In Birmingham) because $800 million would pay for the project.
“This is a $2.1 billion project (in Mobile). The point I was making in response to your first question is that the state contribution to the project will be at least proportional if not more per vehicle on this project than on the Birmingham project.”
FOX10 News: What about the recently passed gas tax increase, which begins phasing in this year?
Cooper: “The stated purpose of that tax was three-fold – congestion relief, economic development and projects of local interest.”