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Stacy Column: This Mobile Mess

By Todd Stacy, Alabama Daily News

The biggest story in the state right now is the controversy surrounding the proposed new bridge spanning the Mobile River that would at long last alleviate frequent congestion along Interstate 10 through the Wallace Tunnel.

The project wasn’t always controversial, though. It used to be an aspirational local goal, the kind politicians love to tout when talking about the future. The Mobile Bayway design looks glorious, its four giant suspension towers competing with the city’s skyline and its soaring 215 foot lift off the water making it the second tallest of its kind in the United States. Hardly anyone disagreed with the need to build the bridge for the last several years. Stories without disagreement are boring, so few paid close attention.

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Then came the problem: this spring it became clear to the wider public that the project’s hefty $2.1 billion price tag would have to be funded in part by drivers in the form of tolls. When the Alabama Department of Transportation announced that tolls ranging from $3 to $6 each way would be necessary to fund bridge construction, much of coastal Alabama experienced collective sticker shock. And adding to the outrage was the important detail that the existing I-10 tunnel route would also be tolled to prevent all traffic from diverting from the bridge and defeating the whole purpose of the project.

Predictably, residents were not pleased. Nobody likes tolls, so that was always bound to be unpopular. Less predictable was the fierce outrage expressed throughout Mobile and Baldwin Counties. Instead of a mild inconvenience local folks could tolerate in exchange for an easier, faster commute, the toll plan has been perceived as an offensive, costly indignity imposed on the coast by the state. Not even a revised plan from ALDOT with discounts for local commuters has mollified the miffed. From Facebook and talk radio to town halls and street protests, people are angry about the Bayway toll situation, and that anger could doom the project, at least for now.

There are several reasons for this. For one, the state could have done a lot better job of rolling out the bridge plan and avoiding that sticker shock. Also, the project is a victim of terrible timing, coming on the heels of the Legislature increasing the gas tax to fund road and bridge improvements. Those dollars were never meant for the Bayway – and couldn’t come close to funding it anyway – but try telling that to folks who don’t regularly read past the headline. Keep in mind that many coastal Alabamians are still upset by the way former Gov. Robert Bentley and the Legislature distributed the BP oil spill money. Of course, politicians have also played their part. Most every candidate for Senate and the local Congressional seat has helped foment anger around the issue to score political points for their campaign. That will only get worse as the GOP’s March primary approaches. Expect “no toll” pledges and other forms of pandering for the next several months (My favorites are the ones who oppose both tolls and gas taxes, and yet expect roads and bridges to be pristine).

That reminds me of one of the biggest lies in retail politics. How often have you heard someone say they hate politicians who simply tell them what they want to hear? It’s a lie. Voters LOVE it when politicians tell them what they want to hear, and so that’s what they get.

It’s too early to say what will ultimately happen in Mobile. The project got some much-needed good news this week when Sen. Richard Shelby announced a $125 million federal infrastructure grant to help pay for bridge construction. That’s a lot of money, yet it only amounts to six percent of the overall cost.

Shelby, long known for directing money back to his home state, is somewhat limited in what he can do here. Congress in 2011 banned the practice of “earmarking,” in which a single line item in an appropriations bill can direct millions or even billions to a lawmaker’s pet project. We can thank Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” and other such wasteful spending campaigns for that.

Also, while Shelby influences a wide range of federal spending as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, highway transportation funding doesn’t work like that of other federal agencies. About 92 percent of federal highway funding is distributed by statutory formulas. That leaves even the most powerful lawmakers  little discretion in directing dollars to projects back home. A massive federal infrastructure bill once touted by President Donald Trump and many lawmakers from both parties has never materialized. For now, the grant process is Mobile’s best bet, and I expect we’ll see a continued effort by Shelby, Congressman Bradley Byrne (and his successor), and Gov. Kay Ivey to make the case for more federal funding for the Bayway project.

In any case, the project will likely always involve tolls. That’s how the U.S. 98 Bankhead Tunnel was funded back in the 1940s and that’s going to be part of the funding formula now. Perhaps the tolls can be lowered to a more reasonable rate, especially for commuters. Maybe all this public input will lead to a more refined and palatable plan from ALDOT.

Until we know for sure, more patience and less politics is probably what’s best for Mobile and the state going forward.

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