MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) said on Wednesday it would likely borrow money against the future revenue of Alabama's gas tax revenue to fund the highly controversial West Alabama Corridor.
The Alabama Legislature passed the Rebuild Alabama Act (RAA) in 2019. The law aimed to collect funds through a statewide increase in fuel tax to fund road and bridge projects. The tax rate has increased by $0.10 per gallon since the law's passage, and the automatic rate adjustment will take effect in October. Most expect the rate to increase.
The law allows ALDOT to borrow 50% of its portion of projected RAA income to fund projects. The process would require a bond issued on income ALDOT has not received yet, but is expected to in the future.
At a meeting of the Joint Transportation Committee of the Alabama Legislature on Wednesday, ALDOT Chief Engineer Edward Austin said ALDOT is considering utilizing that privilege, likely to fund the West Alabama Corridor project.
State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Josephine) questioned Austin about ALDOT's potential to use borrowed money on future income to further road projects in the state.
"This is my very rough, back-of-the-napkin-math, but if you look at what that number is, it seems to be about $77 million in debt service capacity annually, which would support a principal amount of about $2 billion that you could borrow over a 20 year period," Elliot said. "…But my question is, how much of that have ya'll utilized?"
"To date, we have not done any bonding through the [RAA]," Austin replied. "We do have some intentions to do that at a certain time later as projects advance. Currently, we have not identified, from a financial standpoint, a need to do that yet. But, we do know that, as some of the larger projects that we're advancing through the [RAA] move forward, we're likely to have to use that as an option, but we'll just have to wait till we get closer and know what a number is, what our cashflow situation is going to look like for that project versus other rebuild projects."
When further pressed by Elliott, Austin said the bonded funds would "more than likely" go to the West Alabama Corridor.
When announced in 2021, Gov. Kay Ivey said the corridor would cost the state $800 million. The project would link U.S. Highway 43 in Thomasville with Alabama State Highway 69 near Moundville. However, some estimate the project's price tag is closer to $1 billion.
The corridor has caused backlash from lawmakers in the state, including Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, who bashed the project while calling for a widening of I-65, a much higher-traffic highway. Ainsworth also called for ALDOT Director John Cooper to be replaced.
After the committee meeting, Elliott told 1819 News he had suspected leveraged RAA funds would have to be used in the project, hence his line of questioning.
"It's clear to me that, not only are we likely to be paying for a good portion of that road with [RAA] money, but we're going to be paying for that road with future revenue that we've borrowed against to come back and pay for it."
He continued, "Now, Ed Austin did say that they have not done that yet. Well, of course not. They've not started construction yet. I'm trying to get a better funding picture of where the anticipated funding is coming from. …My concern is that we may be looking at borrowing a whole bunch of money against future revenues and then left with less revenues in the future because we spent it on that."
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