How high is “too high” for a toll? What will people do if they don’t want to pay? We could guess but we don’t have to. Under oath in open court, John Cooper of Alabama’s Department of Transportation, Vincent Calametti the Regional Engineer for South Alabama and Jason Hagmaier, a contract lawyer for ALDOT told us themselves, repeatedly, that $2.75 was too high of a toll and that toll avoidance is an issue that faces areas with tolls.
This is the first piece in a 3-part opinion series on the duplicitous nature of Cooper and ALDOT when it comes to public-private partnerships, flaunting the state’s open records laws, tolls and more.
If you’re unfamiliar with the project some background can be found here and here and here but I’ll summarize: Baldwin County entered into a good faith contract with a private bridge company for a P3 down at the beach. Fast forward years and John Cooper at ALDOT decides that even though the partnership does not involve the state it was a bad deal and he is going to do something about it, namely order the bridge company to lower the toll. When they cannot agree on a toll amount Cooper floats the idea of a new bridge. This new bridge barely a mile away from the current bridge would be a “free bridge.”. This new “free” bridge would be funded by statewide taxpayer money as opposed to being tolled.
Now the question of “should there or shouldn’t there be another bridge?” is one we can litigate another day. The bridge is currently being built at a cost of up to $100 million of taxpayer money without a single formal traffic study to justify it.
So what’s important about this case: The arguments against the toll that Cooper and ALDOT make are contrary to the current plan to put a toll on I10 in Mobile.
I cannot summarize the full testimony of ALDOT officials in this case in terms that would do it justice so I encourage you to grab a ginormous cup of coffee and read it here:
ALDOT recognizes that if a toll is too high then people will just take another route just moving congestion not solving the problem.
Here’s the opening statement from ALDOT attorney Hagmaier stating people are “consciously avoiding the toll”:
Here’s one of the three options and the rational for it.
Here’s the opening statement from the bridge company which cites Cooper’s position that the toll not just at $4.00 was too high but that at $2.25 was still too high. (Page 14)
Here are Cooper’s own words, speaking about the local mayor Tony Kennon approaching Bentley to say that locals believe strongly the tolls were the problem:
Again, Cooper’s own words (Page 211) that if a bridge has capacity to handle traffic but that traffic doesn’t come because the toll is too high than it’s no help.