Laura Lane and Doug Snow: For whom the bridge tolls, an expose of big government run amok

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toll bridge

In general, the fuel tax pays for our ordinary highways today. Given this, tolls should be used to pay for some privilege. The Beach Express in Orange Beach provided an alternative to Highway 59, a non-tolled route. It gave people who chose to pay a toll a privileged ride. This is an appropriate use of tolling.

Toll roads are most definitely a libertarian stance; we advocate that all public services be funded in a voluntary manner.

Then, along comes the current AL legislature and, under the leadership of Kay Ivey, proceeds to RAIP the citizens.

Portions of the RAIP plan go into effect in September, mainly the gas tax which increases the current rate by 10 cents. The plan was touted as needed to pay for infrastructure upgrades to bridges and roads. Then, Ivey admitted to a local area news station that the legislators were coached on the plan and those that weren’t in agreement were not encouraged to run for office.

After the passage of the RAIP, one of the first things Ivey said was that the first monies coming in from the gas tax would be allocated to the Port of Mobile for dredging and widening of the channel.

Now, Ivey, through Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT), is trying to force a toll bridge onto the citizens of Mobile and Baldwin counties. This plan calls for the toll project to commandeer the Wallace Tunnel and Bay Way, existing portions of I-10. The tunnel will become part of the new toll project, but the existing Bay Way will be torn down.

The tunnel and Bay Way have already been paid for by the citizens using Federal and State fuel taxes. It is an unfair double taxation to commandeer those structures and toll them.

This misappropriation amounts to the initiation of force to achieve political goals. The people have already paid for the Wallace Tunnel and Bay Way and now they are being taken away from their rightful owners.

In contrast, the toll plan for Mobile destroys the route the people have paid for with their fuel tax in order to drive people onto the tolled route. They offer the Causeway ( a portion US Hwy 90) and the Cochrane Bridge as alternatives. This is an insult to the people of Alabama for ALDOT to pretend the Causeway is a viable non-tolled route. The insult of misinformation is repeated often in the plan to privatize the Bridge.

ALDOT has hired Allison Gregg to head up a massive public relations campaign to sell the toll to the people of Alabama. It is not the function of the government to sell its ideas to the people. It is the proper function of government to prudently implement the ideas of the people.

Many people who follow the Mobile River Bridge and Bay Way toll project accuse the State of Alabama elected officials and bureaucrats of corruption. This is not a claim to be made lightly and the Libertarian Party of Alabama and Citizens for Government Accountability make no such claim. Still, state government has created an atmosphere favorable to corruption. The state legislature created the Alabama Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority to oversee all toll projects in the State of Alabama. The function of this Authority is oversight of state bureaucracies. The entire Authority is appointed by the Governor. John Cooper, the Director of Transportation for Alabama and head of ALDOT is on that Authority.

This lack of independence is an accommodation to corruption. Transparency and accountability are lacking and cannot be enforced without some type of Initiative and Referendum in place for the State.

State funds belong to the taxpayers. It is foundational that our government be responsible stewards of those funds.

Here are disturbing facets of the Mobile River Bridge and Bay Way toll project itself:

• The state will enter a 55-year deal.
• The state has limited non tolled crossing of Mobile River and Bay to the Causeway only. The Bankhead tunnel leading from Downtown to the Causeway is only one lane in each direction. Traffic jams and delays are planned obstacles to using the non toll route that are expected to force people to pay a toll to cross.
• Although the proposed toll would be $6, the toll operator is allowed to add a 40% surcharge for processing the invoice for the toll.
• The planned deal is extremely complicated with many unacceptable risk points.
• Road and Bridge private funding is very prone to bankruptcy.
• Bids that lose will receive up to $2 million in reimbursement.

This toll road is wholly unacceptable to the people of Alabama and should be immediately stopped.

Alabama’s own State Auditor, Jim Zeigler, has presented information that shows there is money available for this project and is leading a group of over 52,000 Alabama residents in opposition to this plan.

But what’s the backstory here? Something is going on to make this bridge…this TOLL bridge such an urgent issue for the current State leadership. So let’s take a look at this proposed toll bridge and the history behind this 20-plus year fiasco.

From the beginning, frequent travelers of I-10 that use the Wallace tunnels and Bay Way have voiced complaints about the entrance to the tunnels; both East and West sides have fairly sharp turns leading into the tunnels, along with on-ramps from local streets. As the population has grown and more residents are traveling to either side of the Bay for employment, congestion and accidents have gotten worse.

They say hindsight is 20/20. ALDOT and the designers of the Wallace Tunnel and Bay Way were definitely short-sighted. Both should have planned for growth and made them capable of handling, at a minimum, three lanes of traffic both ways.

The Federal government had put in $27 million in transportation funding in the 1990’s for a project that would have fixed the issue of the sharp turns and on ramps at the entrances to the Wallace Tunnels. The project was given in the green light in 2010 and expected to start construction as early as 2012. However, the project had not started by May 2013 and the Federal government withdrew the funding due to lack of progress on the project. (al.com – Feds took back $27 million in funding for Wallace Tunnel onramp fix, May 14, 2015)

A letter that’s been uncovered, dated Nov 29, 2004, from then Mobile Mayor Michael Dow to Joe McInnis, Director of ALDOT at the time, states “…the most advantageous location for the new bridge appears to be in the area of the existing Cochrane Bridge, just north of the Alabama Port facilities. The clear benefits of this location to the City and County of Mobile and the Alabama Port Authority are many and include the following advantages: 1) Utilizing this location would remove the height restrictions that would result from the more southerly locations and the site’s negative impact to Alabama’s port, the ship repair and shipbuilding yards, and Mobile’s exciting new cruise industry; 2) How can we build an interstate bridge directly over an active cruise port with multiple cruise ships and high-speed ferries frequenting the port daily and weekly?; 3) Equally as problematic, it has been brought to my attention that the current bridge is designed at 190 feet. The new, modern, and competitive cruise ships that Mobile is aggressively recruiting are 208 feet. This location and design relegates us to non-competitive and smaller cruise ships forever.”

Now let’s go back in time to 2006. Then Governor Bob Riley turned down a deal from the United Arab Emirates pertaining to the container terminal here in the port of Mobile. Did he turn it down because of national security concerns or maybe because 9/11 was so fresh in the minds of Alabamians or maybe because his massive tax plan that was meant to “bring Alabama into the 21st century” failed miserably? Maybe he needed that money for the major upgrades needed for the Port of Mobile, upgrades needed to facilitate the ship sizes and traffic anticipated in that deal.

During his term, Bob Riley tried to impose the largest tax increase in the state of Alabama’s history. Unfortunately for him, this plan was thwarted by the voters with a crushing defeat. Towards the end of Riley’s term, he passed a bill giving $80 million to the Port of Mobile as part of a $300 million investment into the Port’s container terminal.

One has to ask, why would Bob Riley and “investors”, invest $300 million into modifying, and moving the container terminal farther south so it could handle ships that couldn’t even make it up the Mobile ship channel at that time? It makes one wonder if the state didn’t actually turn down the United Arab Emirates back in 2006, but maybe put the project on a shelf for a later date in the future…like now.

The proposal that ALDOT has put out for bidding calls for a bridge with 215 feet of air draft clearance; that’s 215 feet from the water to the underside of the bridge. It also calls for bike lanes and observation areas. That’s right…bike lanes and observation areas.
Logic points to this being designed to accommodate larger cruise ships. That’s the only case that makes sense – only the cruise ships go up the channel past the tunnels. But that’s not all…

The legislature has changed wording in the legislation to classify waterways as roads.

With all the infrastructure needs for Alabama highways, why would the Mobile ship channel take priority over the I-10 Bay Way bridge project? What is so important about that ship channel?

Well, if you do some digging, you will find out, thanks to Riley, the container terminal has been moved and undergone major improvements to handle the large container ships. These ships are over 1000 feet long, over 150 ft wide, high as all get out, and they draw 50 feet or more of water; that is to say, at least 50 feet of the ship is under the waterline.

So again, why does the ship channel project take priority over the I-10 Bridge Project? In order to facilitate these massive ships, you need deep water and a much wider channel. What made us really suspicious was the I-10 Bridge Project went from a simple task of coming up with matching funds for a federally funded construction project to a now whopping $2.1 billion mega project. We have to ask why?

It’s funny how the State has decided to turn this into a toll bridge project instead of sticking with the original plan of an 80/20 split with the federal government. It’s also mysterious how they have padded the cost of this project with 50 years of maintenance for the bridge.

It all boils down to this P3 partnership scheme.

Let’s look at something called “Project Pelican.” Project Pelican was a scathing secret deal between the state of Florida, Washington politicians and the United Arab Emirates. The goal was to lease Port Canaveral in Florida for 35 years. Project Pelican was done totally behind closed doors; the public had absolutely no knowledge of it until they signed the lease making it a done deal. There were many politicians involved in this plot, including Obama, Clinton, and scores of Senators and Congressman. The signers of this lease were parties from the United Arab Emirates.

Now let’s look at the Port of Wilmington, Delaware. It has also been leased by the United Arab Emirates, but this lease was for 50 years.

The UAE company signing these leases is called Gulftainer. Gulftainer is owned by the royal family of Dubai and they control 40 percent of all container traffic in the Mid-East. As of now, they control 2 major ports on the East Coast of the U.S.

These deals were done in total secrecy, totally away from the public’s eyes, kind of like this deal going down here in Mobile. In fact, it’s almost identical other than Mobile has a lot more infrastructure issues to overcome, especially the bridge.

The State is making absolutely no attempt to get federal funding for this I-10 bridge project and, according to Bradley Byrne, ALDOT actually turned down federal funding. It’s almost like they don’t want the Federal government involved in it.

President Trump has publicly shown disapproval of Gulftainer’s takeovers of American ports, so how will Trump view funding for a major interstate project such as the I-10 Bridge and Bay way being provided by foreign nationals from the United Arab Emirates possibly masked behind a P3 partnership? How would they pull this off? Simple – the P3’s are investment companies.

Anyone with enough money can invest with complete anonymity. The P3’s could insulate the real players in the port lease from the interstate bridge project. The source of the money for the bridge stays hidden behind the P3 and no one’s the wiser.

Is this why Alabama was so secretive over this project? Is this why they hid the P3’s for so long? Is using P3 partners over federal funding a way to avoid Federal government involvement? Do they fear the Feds will throw a wrench into the lease deal? Is this why they appear not to care about public opinion? Is this why key legislation bills flew out of Montgomery at such a fast pace? Is Alabama in a race to beat any federal infrastructure legislation that might be coming? Is this why Kay Ivey coached the newly elected Republican Senators right after the primary to hurry and pass the state gas tax and toll legislation needed to speed this project up?

The $64,000 question is, back in 2006, did Bob Riley actually turn down the UAE? So close to the 9/11 attacks plus opposition from the Bush administration, Riley had to have known the people of Alabama would not stand for an Arab government owned company taking over their port.

But now it’s 2019. The people have had plenty of time to forget about 9/11, plus it’s obvious our present Governor does not care how we feel. Ivey can get away with anything as long as she has no intention of being re-elected.

Do we have our own Project Pelican going on right under our noses here in Mobile and Baldwin Counties? Are we going to wake up one morning and find out that the UAE has leased our port for 50 years? Are these the investors behind the P3 Partners from Dubai? Or could it be one of the many shadow companies of Gulftainer? Gulftainer has many shadow companies underneath it; they fall under the name of Crescent Enterprises.

We have to realize that they have already done this kind of thing in Delaware and Florida; what would stop them from doing it right here? The UAE wants port leases all around the United States. Alabama politicians are greedy; $2.1 billion is a drop in the bucket to the UAE.

Could this explain why Kay Ivey is so dead set against the Amtrak coming through Mobile? Since passenger trains take priority over all freight trains, Amtrak coming through Mobile would only delay the shipping of containers in and out of Mobile.

When you see news articles talk about Mobile becoming a major city in the future, could it be because of a mysterious mega billion dollar container terminal deal? Could the political perpetrators of this deal have set the wheels in motion years ago, by moving the container terminal from downtown Mobile to its location at Choctaw Point near Brookley Field?

Ever wonder why Mobile is moving their airport assets to Brookley? It puts the airport practically next door to the container terminals. It’s definitely more convenient. Brookley Field can handle much larger cargo aircraft than the regional airport in West Mobile and you don’t have to truck containers across the miles of heavy city traffic 24-7.

So this proves that back when Bob Riley infused all this money into the new container terminal, they had a plan to bring these massive ships into the Port of Mobile somehow, but the two things standing in the way of completing this project was the depth and width of the channel and, of course, let’s not forget the two tunnels lying underneath the river.

The gas tax will solve the channel problem, and a bridge, that super high bridge, the 2nd highest cable bridge in the United States, could cure some of the tunnel issues.

Our three tunnel tubes’ shallowness force some ships to lighten their loads coming and going to clear the tunnels. That is unacceptable when competing with other ports. Don’t be shocked if the tunnels go away shortly after a new bridge is completed.
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So it’s pretty obvious the State of Alabama has a deal with someone with deep, deep pockets that will front the billions needed to build this bridge project and modify the port, and it seems, the state is promising tolls to reimburse them for their investment over time.

Are the backers the UAE? After connecting the dots, the only investors with this kind of money that makes any sense are our old friends from back in 2006, those guys from the UAE. They had an interest in Mobile long before Port Wilmington and Port Canaveral.

Citizens for Government Accountability (CGA) started digging up this story over 3 months ago. It has been pretty much ignored by multiple local and national media sources. One source claimed they could not connect Gulftainer to the P3’s.

We never thought they would.

The big story here is not just the I-10 bridge project, it’s the possible 20-plus year conspiracy by the State to secretly lease our port out to a foreign country. The state has been funneling lots of money into the state docks over the decades, and as of the 16th of July, named Richard Clark, the new Deputy Director of the Alabama Port Authority, a director that has direct connections to Gulftainer.

People keep wondering where the BP and GOMESA money went; if we had any good investigative media in this state, we might get some answers.

$500 plus million has been invested in the state docks alone, but only $300 million can be accounted for back before Riley left office. If all this turns out true, how much of our money has been spent since the late 90’s bringing us to this point?

All the info leading to this story is online; it’s shocking that no one uncovered it long ago. Even though this is all based on opinion and speculation, a professional investigation is warranted.

We don’t believe this port deal and bridge controversy is just a coincidence and hope this toll does not distract us from the elephant in the room. In fact, if the toll issue goes away tomorrow, the bigger issue is not going away.

Alabama’s State government is out of control. The question is, what are the residents of the state going to do about it?

By: Laura Lane, Libertarian Party of Alabama
Doug Snow, Citizens for Government Accountability