MONTGOMERY, Ala. — More than a dozen contracts with the Alabama Department of Transportation were put on hold Thursday due to a dispute over funding for the West Alabama Corridor project.
During a meeting of the Legislature’s Joint Contract Review Committee at the State House, Clay McBrien, ALDOT assistant chief engineer, presented members with 14 contracts for approval totaling $112 million. Among them was a $74.9 million design-build contract for the initial stages of the West Alabama Corridor project, a proposed 75-mile, four-lane highway from Thomasville to Tuscaloosa.
Announced and championed by Gov. Kay Ivey in 2021, the project would serve as a major improvement to west Alabama’s Highway 43, a three-lane highway that experiences regular traffic congestion and vehicle accidents.
At the meeting, Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Josephine, asked McBrien if he had an estimate on the total cost of the project. Given that the project was being completed in segments, McBrien said it was difficult to produce an exact number, but an estimate from last year was about $800 million. He later said the price tag could be $1 billion to $1.1 billion.
Elliott expressed concerns with the cost uncertainty.
“This administration has a habit of getting started on a project that then goes wildly above budget,” Elliott said. “If you’ll forgive the pun, we’re starting down this road and we have no idea what it’s going to cost.”
Furthermore, Elliott expressed concerns that the project was entirely state funded and used no federal dollars.
The funding is sourced wholly from revenue collected under the Rebuild Alabama Act, the 2019 legislation that raised the state’s gas tax by 10 cents per gallon. Funds collected are set aside on an annual basis for road projects.
“There’s a misconception that federal funds are endless and as long as the state can match it; that’s not correct, and I’ve been dealing with federal funds almost my whole career,” McBrien explained. “Rebuild Alabama was designed to be able to provide additional funds to do economic development, and that’s what we think this job fits.”
The department of transportation has said the use of federal funds on the west Alabama project would mean less available money for other projects in the state and lead to the cancellation of some planned projects.
Elliott eventually said he wanted to put a hold on the contract. The contract review committee can’t kill a contract, but can delay it for up to 45 days. A single member of the panel is allowed to pause any contract they have concerns about or want more information about.
In response to Elliott, Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, suddenly interjected with concerns of his own.
“So I represent an area in west Alabama, and this project is vital to my district and many others,” he said. “This is what frustrates me more than anything else; all these other projects, from I-65, I-10, they’re going to find a way, we’re going to make it happen. But when it comes to the Black Belt, things change.”
England argued that the scrutiny over costs related to a project in the Black Belt – a region with “a whole bunch of poor folks, a lot of Black folks,” he said – were absent when it came to both the $2.7 billion bridge project in Mobile, as well as the recently-announced expansion to I-65.
“If this is the way we’re doing this, where all of sudden we’re going to start counting pennies because this west Alabama project apparently isn’t important enough to treat it like we do other areas, I will ask to hold the rest of the transportation contracts on this agenda if that’s where we’re headed,” England continued.
With more than $112 million worth of ALDOT contracts up for approval, Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook, the chair of the committee, asked those in attendance to excuse committee members as they “step in the back room real quick” to discuss the matter in private.
Upon returning, the committee ultimately voted to hold the West Alabama Corridor contract until an expedited meeting could be held between Roberts, Elliott, England and ALDOT representatives next week. Staying true to his word, England opted to hold all remaining ALDOT contracts.
While the West Alabama Corridor project has amassed considerable support among state leaders, including Ivey, it’s also garnered criticism, such as from Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, who argued the money would be better spent expanding I-65 from Mobile to Huntsville.
The dispute is also couched in a larger debate over whether the Black Belt region has received less funding proportionate to its population than other regions of the state. In May, a U.S. Department of Justice probe found that Alabama engaged in a pattern of neglect in not addressing sewer and wastewater issues in several Black Belt communities.
After the meeting, Elliott told Alabama Daily News that more than anything else, his hesitancy on the West Alabama Corridor project came from its funding mechanisms.
“It is 100% state funding on a federal highway; my concern is, that uses an awful lot of future gas tax revenues, and that we are partitioning a lot of that money on one single project instead of using it around the state on a number of different projects,” he said.
“Now, Rep. England made some comments about the I-10 bridge – it’s a $2.7 billion (project) – but if you compare the two projects, the state funding going into the I-10 bridge is less than the state funding going into the west Alabama corridor because they’re going to toll all of my constituents to pay for it. It’s fine – it’s a difference in delivery methods – I’m just concerned about encumbering future revenues for probably 20 years in a bond market where interest rates are as high as they have historically been.”
Alabama Daily News’ Mary Sell contributed to this report.