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Lawmakers tour I-65 widening project, hear needs for infrastructure funding

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

Infrastructure funding is one of the top issues facing Alabama at the moment. Finding a way to pay for building and repairing the state’s aging roads and bridges is expected to be a top issue in the Alabama Legislature’s 2019 Regular Session no matter who gets elected in November.

One high profile project demonstrates both the problems that come with a lack of resources and the great promise the state could see should a realistic funding solution be found.

Crews are widening Interstate 65 from four to six lanes for a three-mile stretch from State Route 3 in Alabaster north to Pelham where the highway begins its expanse into metropolitan Birmingham’s urban core. The project began in January, earning both groans for the inevitable construction delays and sighs of relief for the eventual positive effect it will have on commuters and travelers alike.

The $70 million project is a major undertaking that has been badly needed for years. It’s one of dozens of major infrastructure needs throughout Alabama. But, due to lack of funding resources, the state can generally only afford to build one of these major projects each year.

Dunn Construction and Wiregrass Construction Company, which won the bids for the project, invited members of the Alabama Legislature to tour their local asphalt-making plant and the highway project itself. Project Manager Michael Estell said the work is on schedule and currently about 43 percent finished.

Jim Page, President of the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce and Chairman of the Alliance for Alabama’s Infrastructure (AAI), hosted the group along with representatives from the Alabama Road Builders Association and the National Asphalt Pavement Association. Together, they explained construction techniques and worked to convince lawmakers why more infrastructure funding is critical to Alabama’s economic future.

The Alliance for Alabama’s Infrastructure has recently started a social media campaign documenting some of the state’s road and bridge deficiencies and urging lawmakers to solve the problem.

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Infrastructure Impact on Economy and Well Being

Page first highlighted the connection between infrastructure development and the growth of Alabama’s economy. He pointed out that the way in which Alabama deals with its infrastructure problems is a key factor in whether or not industries decide to locate or grow their businesses here.

“When businesses around the country are looking to where they want to expand or put a new facility, transportation, infrastructure, and access to infrastructure are at the top of the list of what they are looking for,” Page said.

The quality of the roads and bridges is not only important for bringing in new businesses but also for sustaining the ones that are already here, Page explained.

He said that more than 940,353 full-time jobs in Alabama are completely dependent on the state’s transportation network. The asphalt industry alone directly employs 3,400.

It’s not just about employment numbers, Page said. Inadequate road conditions slow down economic growth in small ways every day.

“We’ve got studies that show the average driver in Shelby and Jefferson county spends almost $900 a year out of pocket on wasted time and wasted fuel because of traffic congestion.  The average Alabamian spends over $300 out of pocket every year in car maintenance because of faulty roads they are driving on,” Page said.

“We’re already spending money on this as an individual taxpayer but we’re not spending it the right way. That’s why we’ve got to come up with a better way to address this issue.”

Safety is another key concern. TRIP, a national nonprofit transportation research group, found that roadway features are a likely contributing factor in approximately one-third of traffic fatalities. In 2016 alone, there were 1,038 traffic fatalities in Alabama.

Roads and bridges are not the only concern on legislators’ minds when talking about infrastructure changes.  State Rep. Rod Scott (D-Birmingham) told Alabama Daily News that the state also needs to focus on sea ports, airports, and railways in order to be a global competitor in the market.

“When companies coming from foreign countries bring their products to Alabama, we need to be able to move it through the state and to the rest of the country. That would really change everything for Alabama. We would be a much more dynamic state, and we have all the resources to build that, and in my opinion, we should have the best infrastructure in the country,” Scott said.

Other lawmakers and candidates for the legislature were there to observe as well. Most of their districts either fall within the I-65 widening project or have industries involved with building and maintaining roads.

State Rep. Matt Fridy (R-Montevallo) said that he has heard from many of his constituents that they are absolutely thrilled with the I-65 expansion, which runs right through his district.

State Sen. Jabo Waggoner (R-Birmingham), Rep. David Wheeler (R-Vestavia), and Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Birmingham) were all on hand to visit the site and listen to industry experts. Dan Roberts, who is running for State Senate in Birmingham’s District 5, and Neil Rafferty, who is running for the House of Representatives in District 54, also attended.

They all represent potentially key votes on legislation that would increase funding for infrastructure.

In 2017, a proposal to gradually increase Alabama’s gasoline and diesel taxes to fund a $2.45 billion bond issue for roads and bridges fell short in the House of Representatives. The bill had widespread support from legislative leadership and Gov. Kay Ivey, but lawmakers ultimately could not agree on the details of the plan.

Alabama’s gas tax has been fixed at 18-cents per gallon since 1992. With greater fuel efficiency over the years, consumers don’t buy as much gasoline, leading to declining revenues. Inflation and the rising costs of construction have also made it harder to spread limited dollars around.

Page said the AAI has been working with industry groups and the legislative leadership to make a new funding proposal among the top agenda items in the 2019 session. He called it “a non-partisan issue that needs bi-partisan support.”

Many candidates on both sides of the aisle running for re-election or for the first time have already stated that they either support or would be willing to talk about solutions to this problem, including raising the gas tax.

The Trump Administration released an infrastructure plan in February 2018 that would provide $200 billion in new federal grants and loans over 10 years with a leverage of $1.5 trillion in total project spending on infrastructure, including surface transportation. But those grants would be contingent on state and local governments raising their own funds to help pay for the projects, offering extra incentive to states like Alabama to generate more funding.

Congress has not yet taken up the issue, but could after the 2018 midterm elections.

Another reason time is of the essence is because short-term bond issue funding mechanisms like ATRIP and RAMP are set to expire in 2020. That will see Alabama lose as much as $450 million in transportation spending.

Expanding I-65

Lawmakers were also taken to get a closer look at the expansion of I-65 from exits 242 to 238.  The approximately 3.5 mile stretch is estimated to be completed by 2020, Estell said.

The expansion will result in an eight-lane highway, with four lanes on each side. This will fix the long-standing congestion problems headed into and out of Birmingham and is the major project for ALDOT this year.

According to Estell 89,000 cars are driven on that section of I-65 per day and in about 20 years that number is estimated to be around 180,000 cars a day.

Asphalt versus the use of concrete during these repayment projects has been the subject of debates and controversy for these infrastructure projects. But John Harper, the President of Wiregrass Construction Company, explained during the visit that asphalt works best for this project, both from a speed and recyclable materials standpoint.

“We know from a construction standpoint and the speed of construction, and the ride-ability factor, that asphalt has been the chosen material ADOT uses,” Harper said. “But we don’t need to mandate any type of legislation, it just needs to be an engineering decision.”

The engineering and construction team is confident that the I-65 expansion will be finished on schedule and that it will just be the start of what’s to come for infrastructure improvements in the state.

Caroline Beck is a reporter living in Montgomery. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineBeckADN or email her at [email protected].

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