ALDOT takes steps to improve transparency after severe public backlash over Mobile tolling plans but still misses mark says critics

Mobile Alabama Skyline
Mobile, Ala. skyline

41,445 that’s the number (as of the time this story went live) of individuals who have joined the Facebook group to “Block the Mobile Bay Toll.” Public opinion is often split on large infrastructure projects but in this case, according to media reports and Facebook activity, it seems resoundingly consistent: The residents who would use the route do not want and cannot afford the coming toll road.

For months, as public opposition has grown stronger and more vocal ALDOT has only doubled down on their talking points that the toll is the only solution and that it’s all but a done deal. 

The biggest opponent of the bridge has been State Auditor Jim Ziegler who created the opposition Facebook page and has rallied troops to write and call Governor Kay Ivey and show up at a town hall sponsored by Congressman Bradley Byrne who later came out against the toll. 

Today however ALDOT somewhat changed course and released what they called a “Myth Busters” fact sheet. The sheet first reported on by Al.Com is posted in full below. Though they have yet to post it to the project’s webpage the fact sheet is one of the first acknowledgments by ALDOT that they are facing formidable opponents who are disrupting their plans and that they can not turn a blind eye to the growing voices.

Zeigler had this to say about today’s, “ALDOT’s Myth Busters propaganda sidestepped the vital issue – the toll’s cost to local motorists who travel I-10 and to small businesses that rely on I-10 daily. 

Look at a family whose budget is barely in balance.  They live on one side of the Bay and work on the other.  By adding $1,080 toll per car to their yearly budget, you will put those families in financial ruin. 

ALDOT did not address the problem of leasing out a portion of an Interstate that belongs to the people.

ALDOT did not address the problem of giving a 55-year lease to the toll operator.

ALDOT did not address the problem of the toll rates being set by the toll company and changeable for 55 years.

ALDOT is fixated on charging a toll.  They are for the toll, the whole toll, and nothing but the toll.

ALDOT basically said:  ‘It’s my way or no highway.”

The fact sheet reads:

In this first edition of Myth Busters, we address some of the issues we are hearing the most.

Concern: There shouldn’t be a toll.
Without a toll the project won’t happen. If the project doesn’t happen, drivers will sit in congestion more regularly – and will be more likely to be late to work, pick up the kids, class, and appointments. Not building the project also means the cost of the project will grow due to rising construction costs – so we will be in a worse situation down the road.

Due to a nationwide shortage in funding for major transportation infrastructure projects, the state and federal government do not have sufficient funding to deliver the project through its traditional funding model which typically has an 80/20 split between federal investment and state investment. The federal infrastructure legislation proposed under the current administration is heavily dependent upon tolling to deliver infrastructure projects around the United States.

With a toll, those who use the alignment pay for it. A free route will be maintained for those who do not want to pay a toll; the free route includes the Causeway, Bankhead Tunnel and the Cochrane-Africatown USA Bridge.

Concern: Tolling is double-taxing.
A toll is a user fee, not a tax. If a driver does not use the facility, he or she does not pay for it. Drivers only pay a toll when they choose to drive on a toll road because it provides a higher level of convenience, reliability, or safety. Toll customers also pay their share of local, state, and federal taxes through the purchase of fuel. Money generated through gas taxes help fund non-tolled roads that are open to everyone.

Concern: The gas tax should pay for this project.
The gas tax won’t be in full effect until October 2021. Then, it is estimated to bring in around $320 million annually for statewide projects. If the state set aside $100 million of those annual funds and earmarked them for the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project, it would take 21 years before we could break ground. Given inflation, the cost of the project would increase significantly. Moreover, there is currently a multi-billion dollar backlog of existing road and bridge needs that will consume and even exceed the new state revenue from the Rebuild Alabama Act.

Concern: You refused federal funding.
With the exception of the INFRA Grant award announced on July 25, 2019, ALDOT has never been offered federal funding for this project. With reference to the GOMESA funding, those funds are for projects and activities for the purposes of coastal protection, including conservation, coastal restoration, hurricane protection, and infrastructure directly affected by coastal wetland losses. Those funds are not for building roads and ALDOT has no control over how those funds are allocated and distributed. Even if it was determined that this project was an eligible use for GOMESA funds, it would take away from the many local uses in Mobile and Baldwin Counties that are steeped in years of precedents. If the total annual amount of GOMESA funds was committed to the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway Project to pay debt service, it would mean no other eligible and needed local projects could be funded. Furthermore, even if the total annual amount of GOMESA funds was committed to the Mobile bridge project, the funds would not be sufficient to eliminate tolls.

Concern: You should use BP Money to pay for the project.
Under the RESTORE Act, Alabama is receiving approximately $370 million to be administered by the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council for projects in Mobile and Baldwin Counties that are focused on ecosystem restoration, economic development, and tourism protection. To date, Alabama has received a total of $97 million in RESTORE Act funds. In addition, Alabama will receive approximately $21 million per year from 2019 through 2031. Even if the entirety of the remaining estimated $250 million were allocated to the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway Project, the funds would not be sufficient to eliminate tolls. Furthermore, it would mean that no other eligible and needed local projects could be funded with RESTORE Act funds.

Concern: Traffic will back up because of toll booths.
There will be NO TOLL BOOTHS. The proposed Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project feature all-electronic tolling. Drivers will maintain safe speeds as they pass under gantries that are equipped with cameras to capture license plates or read transponders.

Concern: ALDOT is going to close Bankhead Tunnel.
Bankhead Tunnel will remain open. ALDOT has committed to maintaining a free route across the Mobile River and Mobile Bay. The free route consists of the Bankhead Tunnel, the Cochrane-Africatown USA Bridge, and the Causeway. ALDOT has no plans to remove the Bankhead Tunnel. ALDOT regularly inspects the Bankhead Tunnel and maintains the tunnel to ensure its sustainability. Closure of the Bankhead Tunnel is not in any of ALDOT’s short-term or long-term transportation plans.

Concern: ALDOT is going to remove the Causeway.
The Causeway will remain open to traffic as it currently exists today. ALDOT will implement an access management plan on the Causeway to help with congestion, which is expected to occur with or without the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway Project. As stated above, ALDOT has committed to maintaining a free route across the Mobile River and Mobile Bay, and the Causeway is an integral component of the free route.

Concern: You’re going to start collecting tolls soon (on Bayway or Wallace Tunnel).
ALDOT has repeatedly stated that toll collection will not start until the project is complete and all lanes on the new bridges are open to traffic which is anticipated to be 2025.