Attempting to salvage a Mobile River bridge and Bayway project that suddenly is in jeopardy, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey pledged Wednesday to give local officials a greater say in the plan.
In a letter to Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson and Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood, Ivey promised that the Alabama Department of Transportation would not move forward with the $2.1 billion project “until the final, best plan available has been disclosed” to both the Mobile Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Ivey told Stimpson and Haygood, who chair their respective MPOs, that ALDOT would work with local officials to “streamline the Project in order to reduce cost” and/or to seek additional funds to reduce or eliminate the need for tolls.
In return, the governor urged both MPO boards to keep the project on their TIP lists so that the state can continue moving forward.
“We all know that the only way to see if this bridge is possible is to keep the process going,” she wrote.
Haygood told FOX10 News, however, that the governor’s commitment falls short. He said he has laid out three demands – that the state deliver a guaranteed no-toll solution, that it provide a defined, accountable process for moving forward, and that it provide an opportunity to rest the “last line of defense” local officials have through the MPO process.
“This delivers on one of those three,” he said. “It fails to deliver on the other two.”
There remains no guarantee that tolls would be removed as a funding sources and does not ensure an accountable process, he said.
“It doesn’t go far enough to ensure the residents of Coastal Alabama that there would be no tolls,” he said.
The MPOs, made up of local elected and appointed officials, hold something of a veto over the project. Last week, the Mobile MPO voted to remove the project from its Transportation Improvement Plan until at least October. The Eastern Shore MPO is poised to remove the project from its TIP later Wednesday.
To be eligible for federal funds and loan guarantees, the bridge must be on both MPO lists.
State officials thus far have shown little inclination to alter plans that call for building a 215-foot bridge over Mobile River and a new, wider Bayway that rises an average of 8 feet higher than the current structure. The plan calls for tolls of up to $6 for a one-way trip – plus a 50 percent surcharge for drivers who do not have transponder devices in their vehicles. Drivers making more than four trips a month and those who buy monthly passes would get discounts.
ALDOT received hundreds of public comments, including many suggestions for alternate sources of revenue or cheaper alternatives. But the agency rejected all of those suggestions in a formal Environmental Impact Statement published earlier this month.
In a statement, Ivey reiterated her contention that the project is vital for the future of commerce in southwest Alabama.
“The Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project is critical – not only to Mobile and Baldwin Counties, but the entire Gulf Coast Region – and would be important for the continued growth of all of Alabama,” she stated. “The Eastern Shore MPO’s decision today will be to continue exploring all options to move this project forward. My Administration’s goal is to find an agreed-upon plan that both the Mobile and Eastern Shore MPOs can approve. Their support is essential to create a pathway to continue the procurement process.”
Alabama state Auditor Jim Zeigler, who has spearheaded opposition to the tolling plan, called the governor’s offer “fake compromise” that he and his 50,000 followers on Facebook reject.
“ALDOT is for the toll, the whole toll and nothing but the toll,” he told FOX10 News. “They have been stubborn throughout this discussion.”