A Senate bill that could provide more money for a proposed Mobile River bridge and expanded Bayway cleared a committee on Tuesday, offering hope to opponents of a plan to toll the new route.

The America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act, which would spend $287 billion on roads and bridges over the next five years, unanimously advanced out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

It would create PROTECT grants that would award up to $1 billion on a competitive basis and almost $4 billion more awarded under a formula over the next five years for projects designed to protect critical infrastructure.

Eligible projects on the PROTECT grants include improving or replacing existing infrastructure at risk from extreme weather or natural disasters; and strengthening, stabilizing or elevating highways and bridges subject to longer-term risk of natural disasters, storm surge and coastal flooding.

That is the precise rationale for elevating the Bayway as part of the proposed project that includes a new 215-foot-high bridge. And it is the reason why the price tag is so high – $2.1 billion.

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Mountain Brook) said in a statement Tuesday that the bill could be a great source of federal revenue for the project. Thus far, the only direct federal spending is a $125 million grant announced last week by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“The new PROTECT grants could provide a much-needed source of federal revenue for the Mobile Bay Bridge, our aging rural roads, and other vital infrastructure projects across Alabama,” Jones said in a statement. “Communities that receive these grants would not only benefit from federal investments to improve, replace, or build new roads, bridges, and evacuation routes – but they could also bring a huge economic boost.”

Jones indicated that the legislation includes elements of his Be SAFE Act. Both that and the bill that cleared the committed Tuesday devoted funding to upgrading hurricane evacuation routes.

“Clearly, the Mobile Bay Bridge is one that can be, is considered an evacuation route,” he told reporters last week on a conference call. “That would provide a pool of money to, at least, help offset the cost if we can get that passed.”

Allison Gregg, a spokeswoman for the project, welcomed the legislation.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “Our stance is that we’ll pursue any additional source of funding.”

State Auditor Jim Zeigler, who launched an anti-toll Facebook group that now has more than 42,000 members, told FOX10 News that the vote in the Senate committee was good news.

“This is another potential source of funding for the I-10 bridge project. … This is just another indication that there are other ways to fund a bridge,” he said.

Mobile River Bridge rendering

New plans put the bridge at 215 ft. which would make it the highest of its kind in the US

The ultimate fate of the bill is uncertain, however. It must pass the full Senate and the House of Representatives. What’s more, passing the bill is only half of task. Lawmakers also must find a way to fund it. Current estimates are that the projected revenues under current tax levels will be at least $80 billion short of what the bill intends to spend.

But Zeigler said the bipartisan nature of Tuesday’s committee vote is a good sign. He urged the state to pause the project until it has explored all possible funding options.

Gregg said new money acquired down the road “can be injected into the project at any time.”

That would allow a reduction in tolls, currently proposed at $6 for a one-way trip, with discounts possible for regular users.

Could the tolls be eliminated?

“It’s a lovely goal, and we will continue to work toward it,” Gregg said.

All content © 2019, WALA; Mobile, AL. (A Meredith Corporation Station). All Rights Reserved.

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