The key to Alabama’s economic future: Infrastructure investments

Image from AA Roads

Sometimes the best way to look at the future is to study the past. In Alabama, we know that after Thomas Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase, he immediately authorized infrastructure to connect the new lands with the east.  From Postal roads to ports and railroads, Alabama grew and prospered with each new infrastructure project.

Today, if Alabama is going to remain competitive — make no mistake, other states are actively reducing burdensome regulations and facilitating new infrastructure projects to continue to attract jobs and investment — then Alabama has to get to work. One thing history has shown us is that when the good people of Alabama roll up their sleeves and get to work, we can compete and we can compete and win in a global market.

Today our state needs to focus on several new and critical infrastructure projects that require our attention This is a nationwide issue of critical importance; the United States has an estimated $5.2 trillion (with a T) backlog of unmet infrastructure needs. It’s not a matter of if we need new infrastructure investment, but how we do it most efficiently without saddling taxpayers with massive costs.

Many of these answers lie in the public-private partnership model, in which the government partners with private businesses to build, operate and maintain critical infrastructure. It’s a model that recognizes the efficiencies and speed with which the private sector can get things done, while meeting and delivering all requirements for the state and federal governments. Projects that languish in underfunded bureaucracies can come to life when these public-private partnerships are used. And most importantly, the dollars necessary to fund critical transportation projects come from the private sector, not the taxpayer.

Alabama is seeing a boom along its southern coast, with cities like Orange Beach and Gulf Shores experiencing massive tourism-fueled growth. This is great news for the region and for our state as a whole, but with growth comes congestion. Until a privately owned toll bridge was constructed, visitors and locals only had one way to cross the Intracoastal Waterway to get to the Gulf: the I-59 bridge.

But that private toll bridge, the Beach Express, gives visitors an option to avoid the congestion of I-59 and pay a small toll for the right to cross quickly. The Beach Express has roughly one-tenth of the traffic seen on I-59.

That isn’t just good news for commuters, but taxpayers across Alabama as well. No public money has gone toward the construction, operation or maintenance of the Beach Express. And because a private company owns the asset, there is a profit motive that ensures they will do everything they can to attract more drivers. We saw this with a recent announcement that American Roads, the owner of the Beach Express, is voluntarily lowering tolls for drivers while simultaneously investing its own money in widening the bridge to improve traffic flow.

Today, in Washington, D.C., there is a renewed vigor to rebuild America starting with its infrastructure.   There are a number of federal programs that specifically focus on public-private partnerships. The Beach Express is a great example of how these partnerships should work.  Sitting in traffic wastes your time, wastes fuel, and hurts everyone.  With access to funding, the private operators can get the expansion moving–and get you moving–much faster then the traditional government model.

Alabama has a lot to be proud of, but we also have a lot of work to do to remain competitive and to improve our quality of life.  We can start by recognizing the limitations of the traditional government run infrastructure projects and overcome those limitations by using the more efficient public-private partnership model in cases where it makes sense to do so. The Beach Express expansion is a perfect example where this can come into to play and the people of Alabama, and the citizens of Mobile, will be far better for it.