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$112 million in ALDOT projects remain on hold over funding dispute

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — More than a dozen Alabama Department of Transportation contracts remain on hold this week as some lawmakers and department officials continue to discuss the funding and future of the high-profile West Alabama Corridor project.

Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Josephine, last week delayed a $74.9 million design-build contract on the 75-mile, four-lane highway from Thomasville to Tuscaloosa last week over concerns about financing from the state’s 2019 gas tax increase.

In response, Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, who advocated for the west Alabama project, held about a dozen other ALDOT contracts. The two men are on the Legislative Contract Review Committee, which can delay contracts for 45 days.

On Wednesday, Elliott, England and Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook, met with ALDOT leaders to talk more about the corridor project.

“My concerns remain and they largely focus around the fact that I think we’re going to have to borrow against the Rebuild Alabama money for the next 20 years to be able to do this project,” Elliott told Alabama Daily News after the meeting on Wednesday.

He did not release the contract and said more discussions are expected.

England described the meeting as “basically just information gathering,” and told ADN that no agreement was reached and the holds remain on the ALDOT contracts.

“They’re probably going to be held for a while longer,” England said.

The west Alabama project would be financed by bonds repaid over time from the 10-cent per gallon gas tax increase approved by lawmakers in 2019. That Rebuild Alabama Act legislation allows for 50% of the state’s projected revenue from the tax increase to be committed for bond debt. Elliott and others have asked why no federal funds are being used.

England argues that questions about costs related to the project were brought up far less when compared to projects outside the Black Belt, and that revenue from the gas tax increase is collected under the Rebuild Alabama Act specifically for projects like the West Alabama Corridor project.

“That was the purpose of Rebuild Alabama, for Alabama projects; the folks in my district and others in the West Alabama Corridor have been paying the gas tax just like everybody else, and they should get a return on their investment, especially for a project that is as needed as this one,” he said.

“Secondly, the project itself isn’t closed off to other alternative means of funding, so in the future, if there’s a grant, federal money or other dollars that could come to help pay for it, we are all willing to take advantage of it.”

Clay McBrien, ALDOT assistant chief engineer, last week said the planned improvement to Alabama Highway 43, which has been championed by Gov. Kay Ivey, was expected in last year’s estimates to cost about $800 million. He also said it could be as high as $1.1 billion.

Tony Harris, a spokesman for ALDOT, said the department was pleased to meet with the trio of lawmakers.

“We are prepared to continue discussions and provide any information we can,” Harris told ADN. “The West Alabama Highway has strong support as it will open up economic development opportunities and connect Alabamians in this under-served part of the state to jobs, medical care and other necessities.”

Elliott said he’d be asking the same questions if so much state gas tax money were to be spent in Lee or Madison counties.

“At the end of the day, the long-term health of this project would be so much better served by a financing plan that may actually stand the test of time,” Elliott said. “And that financing plan would have to involve some federal money. But I’m worried that what we end up with is a piece of a project that eventually in the very near future, we realize we can’t afford.”

Roberts, chair of the contract review committee, said he is coordinating another meeting. 

“I am very much for the west corridor, it’s just the financing where my concern is,” Roberts said. He’d like to see some federal funding.

“The number of legislators who have reached out with concerns about this has definitely increased in the last week, that is for sure,” Roberts said.

Alabama Daily News’ Alexander Willis contributed to this report.

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