Exclusive by Former Governor Robert Bentley: ‘We’ve been down this road before’

Gov Robert Bentley_AP

Ask anyone from Guntersville, Ala. about the old Red Mill Bridge and you’ll hear decades-old stories of terrible fatal car crashes, terrifying close calls, several near misses, and a bureaucratic gridlock that once made the dangerous one-lane bridge a roadblock to economic development. Ask them about the new Red Mill Bridge and you’ll hear a different story.

In 2017, our Administration helped dedicate the safe and sturdy new structure in Marshall County much to the relief and amazement of the local leaders and community. Red Mill Bridge is one of over a thousand road and bridge improvement projects that were made possible through ATRIP, the Alabama Transportation Road Improvement Program

Our Administration, along with the Alabama Legislature, launched ATRIP in 2012, during a difficult economic slump when unemployment in our state was double digits and jobs were scarce. ATRIP was an answered prayer, allowing local governments the ability to access future federal dollars for road improvement projects that were needed immediately. All they had to do was match 20% and GARVEE bonds would make up for the remaining 80% needed to get the projects going. 

Since then over 1,000 ATRIP projects have been completed for a total of 1.2-Billion dollars. Over 94% of the projects were completed using Alabama-based contractors. ATRIP is the largest road and bridge project in the state’s history. 

And not a single penny of your taxes had to be raised to get Red Mill Bridge, and hundreds more projects completed. 

A massive push is now underway to raise the gasoline tax and it’s moving at breakneck speed through the Alabama Legislature. As a former Governor and a former member of the House of Representatives, I can tell you nothing moves that fast without a lot of motivation. The tax will be imposed on those of us who use gasoline, and it is being pitched as a way to pay for road and bridge improvements. Raising a gas tax is one way to pay for paving roads, adding turning lanes and replacing old bridges. But the success of ATRIP has already proven it’s certainly not the only way. 

A conservative political blog just yesterday criticized me for publicly reminding people or “bragging” about ATRIP, especially as a proven alternative to raising taxes. This is the same blog that once made a poor attempt at an April Fool’s joke claiming I’d switched to the Democratic Party for daring to suggest a tax increase mainly on corporations. That was 2015, and despite slashing state government and saving taxpayers over 1-Billion dollars annually, we still had barely enough money to fund even essential state services. These weren’t indexed taxes on the poorest of our state or on necessary goods and services, like gasoline or groceries. The bulk of the taxes presented in 2015 were complicated taxes and fees already owed by corporations. 

But at that time, despite the days, weeks and hours I spent traveling this state, listening and answering questions, presenting thoroughly vetted and transparent bills, Republican Legislators and conservative blogs weren’t having it. Today many of those Republican Legislators, not to mention blogs once so appalled by taxes, are suddenly and loudly leading the charge for today’s proposed gas tax increase. Many of those Legislators also have framed photos of us together at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for one of those newly completed ATRIP road projects in their district.     

It’s simply not fair to the people of this state to pretend that Alabama hasn’t addressed road funding since 1992, as a current radio ad claims. This is just not true. It’s not fair to local governments and communities who have been able to be a part of ATRIP to say raising a gas tax on the people is the only option to solving a dire issue. It’s not. 

And it’s wrong to attempt to paint our great state as broken, rotting and crumbling, when the economy has reached historic highs and unemployment is at historic lows. There are better and stronger options to continuing the progress our state has already made toward fixing our infrastructure, than putting the financial burden on the backs of hardworking people. 

Infrastructure is as much a federal issue as it is a state issue. ATRIP solidified that partnership with enormous success, and it doesn’t have to end. Our federal and state leaders should work together, along with supporting President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan, to secure stronger funding for Alabama’s needed improvements. 

Is it bragging to give ATRIP credit where it’s due? You bet it is. When a chicken truck can turn onto Red Mill Bridge from a nearby poultry farm or two school buses can now pass at the same time, it’s definitely worth bragging about. Especially when it didn’t cost you an extra dime. 

Robert Bentley was Alabama’s 53rd Governor. He is a currently a Physician in full-time practice in Tuscaloosa, Ala.