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Judge halts beach bridge project

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Driven by a “personal vendetta” against a toll bridge company, Alabama’s transportation director planned to build an unnecessary bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway at a cost of more than $100 million to the state, according to a judge who ordered construction to stop Wednesday.

Montgomery Circuit Judge Jimmy Pool, siding with the toll bridge company, issued a preliminary injunction ordering a halt to construction of the project. Pool said trial evidence showed that Transportation Director John Cooper pushed for the new bridge without traffic studies and had only one discussion about it with the governor,

“Director Cooper’s outrageous conduct in embarking on spending more than $120 million of State funds, on a bridge that ALDOT does not need, for the purpose of putting a private company out of business shocks the conscience of the Court,” Pool wrote.

Baldwin County Bridge Company, which operates the existing toll bridge to get to Gulf beaches, filed a lawsuit seeking to block construction of the new bridge that would be located just over 1 mile away from its existing toll bridge. The company argued that Cooper acted in bad faith during negotiations to lower toll amounts and other operational changes, then pursued the new bridge project to financially damage the company.

Transportation Department spokesperson Tony Harris said the state will appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.

“We are disappointed in the decision because it’s clear that a new, free bridge is needed to help alleviate traffic congestion and offer a new evacuation option to residents and visitors to Alabama’s Gulf Coast,” Harris wrote in an emailed statement. “Years of negotiations with the private toll bridge company failed to deliver a solution. The public benefit of a new, free bridge should outweigh the interests of the private toll bridge company.”

During trial testimony, Cooper defended the decision to proceed with the project last year. Cooper said an alternative route is needed to alleviate traffic congestion on the highway leading to state beaches. He said the decision was made based on traffic data and support from local and state officials.

The Transportation Department last year signed a $52 million contract for bridge construction. An attorney for the toll bridge company said the expense of related roadways will bring the total cost to $120 million.

“People in positions of authority representing the government cannot do or say anything they want. When government officials attempt to target businesses through bad faith, the courts of Alabama will hold them accountable,” said Joe Espy, a lawyer for the toll bridge company.

Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft expressed his disappointment in the ruling in a statement Wednesday.

“Today’s ruling is unfortunate. It means that the new, free bridge – where construction is already underway – is unnecessarily delayed. I am hopeful that the Alabama Supreme Court will allow this badly-needed construction to continue as the legal process proceeds so that this new, free, publicly-owned bridge can improve the safety and quality of life for Alabama residents and visitors alike.”

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