MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Alabama transportation officials strongly have suggested their hands are tied when it comes to a portion of the proposed Mobile River bridge and Bayway project that adds $350 million to the projected cost.
That is the cost of removing the current Bayway and building the replacement higher above Mobile Bay. The Alabama Department of Transportation has said it cannot simply widen the Bayway; it must build it higher in order to protect against storm surge.
But a federal official told FOX10 News last week that there is no hard-and-fast requirement mandating that the elevation. ALDOT offered a detailed response arguing that the elevation is, indeed, a necessity.
ALDOT Director John Cooper has given slightly different explanations over the last couple months. Last month, for instance, he said this: “In the end, where everybody has come down on that, is that the rule requires that if a new bridge structure is built, it will be built above the 100-year storm surge level.”
Cooper noted then that bridges in Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana have been damaged by storms in recent years. The Mobile Bayway has avoided catastrophic damage, but Hurricane Katrina in 2005 did cause damage to the ramps.
“While you can debate the issue of whether you should raise the Bayway, no one is prepared to go forward without raising the Bayway since that is what the rule says you should do,” he said.
Asked if the state had to do it under federal law, he said, “Under federal rules, you do. That is the standard promulgated by AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials.”
In a separate interview with FOX10 News earlier this month, Cooper clarified that it is not the decision to widen the Bayway to four lanes in each direction that is drawing federal scrutiny.
“The requirement we’re talking about is the heighth,” he said.
In a meeting with state legislators from Mobile and Baldwin counties last week, though, Cooper softened his characterization of the storm surge mandate. He said it comes down to interpretation. Even if the requirement does not explicitly appear in a statute or regulation, it could still block efforts to get federal permits, he told lawmakers.
“It is the law if the federal official who is determining whether you get a permit thinks it’s the law,” he said.
The AASHTO standard that Cooper referenced is not actually a federal regulation. It comes from the organization’s 2008 publication, “Guide Specifications for Bridges Vulnerable to Coastal Storms.”
The group, made up of state transportation officials, is influential.
“A lot of those recommendations and standards and guidelines are used by the states,” said Lloyd Brown, a spokesman for the organization.
But Brown said the guidance does not have the force of law.