GULF SHORES — The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) plans to continue pushing for a new, free bridge in Baldwin County after the construction of the bridge was halted Wednesday when Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Jimmy Pool ordered a preliminary injunction.
The Baldwin County Bridge Company requested the injunction stating that ALDOT director John Cooper operated in bad faith when deciding to build a new, free bridge near the existing toll bridge owned by BCBC. BCBC attorneys stated during seven days of hearings that the free bridge would not only send BCBC into bankruptcy but would also be a waste of $120 million in taxpayer money.
"Twice in the last month ALDOT has been held accountable for its actions," said BCBC attorney Joe Espy. "Today is a victory for the rule of law and the citizens of Alabama. 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."
However, ALDOT spokesman Tony Harris said the fight isn’t over.
“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 said in a 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. ALDOT will file a notice of appeal with the Alabama Supreme Court.”
In the lawsuit, the plaintiff, BCBC, stated the plans for the bridge were made without public input or hearings and without traffic studies proving the bridge would relieve traffic on Highway 59, the main purpose of the bridge. Furthermore, BCBC attorneys argued the company attempted to negotiate with ALDOT with no success.
“BCBC offered to build a new two-lane bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway alongside its existing bridge at no cost to the State, to expand the number of toll plazas at its bridge, to make over $70 million in additional contributions to meet the infrastructure needs of ALDOT, Gulf Shores, and Orange Beach, to let Baldwin County residents use the expanded BEX Bridge as much as they wanted, year-round, for free, to build a third two-lane bridge in the future, also at no cost to the State, if necessary, and to hand over the expanded BEX Bridge to the State at the end of the term of the agreement,” Pool wrote. “Even though Director Cooper’s own expert admitted that BCBC’s proposal would improve traffic on the Highway 59 Bridge and even though it would save the taxpayers of Alabama $120 million that could be used on other pressing infrastructure projects throughout the State of Alabama, Director Cooper did not even consider BCBC’s August 2022 proposal.”
In the order, the judge agreed with BCBC and stated that he believes the purpose of Cooper trying to build the new bridge was more about putting BCBC out of business instead of attempting to relieve traffic on Highway 59. He said Cooper acted in bad faith and throughout the 80-page ruling called the bridge “Cooper Bridge.”
The BCBC built the bridge with private funds over two decades ago. At that time, agreements were put into place allowing BCBC to collect tolls in exchange for building the much-needed bridge. Baldwin County also issued a license to the company to operate and manage the bridge. According to a license issued in 1996, BCBC has perpetual rights to operate the bridge as a toll bridge. Pool said Cooper “openly and brazenly admitted that he personally dislikes the fact that BCBC has contractual rights.”
Pool did not mince words in his ruling, calling the plan to build the new bridge a “scheme” to use taxpayer funds to put a private company out of business. He also accused Cooper of lying on the stand.
“In this proceeding, despite a mountain of evidence demonstrating otherwise, Director Cooper has doubled down on that stated rationale, testifying under oath and under penalty of perjury that alleviating traffic on Highway 59 was his true purpose in building the Cooper Bridge,” Pool wrote. “The Court does not credit that testimony and does not find it to be truthful. It is clear from the record that Director Cooper misled BCBC and the people of Alabama and lied about his reason for pursuing his own bridge.
“As another elected official testified, the Cooper Bridge is a ‘boondoggle.’ Through this proceeding, it has been revealed to be a complete waste of over $120 million in taxpayer funds to carry out the personal vendetta of Director Cooper.”
After seeing evidence that bridge improvements are needed across the state and that ALDOT has limited funds to address those issues, Pool said it doesn’t make financial sense to spend millions of dollars on a new bridge. He also stated Cooper has not been in regular communication with Gov. Kay Ivey, according to his own testimony during the hearings.
“Alarmingly, Director Cooper testified that he has never spoken with Governor Ivey about his new bridge project,” Pool stated. “He then backtracked, claiming that he mentioned his new bridge project to her once in 2017 when she first took office. He has not spoken a single word to the Governor a,bout the Cooper Bridge in six years. When asked ‘How many more millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money do you think you’re going to spend on this project without talking to Governor Ivey?’ Director Cooper responded: ‘I don’t know.”
Scott Bridge Company, which was awarded the bid on the ALDOT bridge, has already been working to build the bridge. Several crews from the Opelika-based bridge company have been working for months. Ike Scott, the owner of Scott Bridge Company, told 1819 News he is working to find out more about what to do going forward.
In the ruling for the preliminary injunction, Judge Pool said Cooper tried to manufacture harm to ALDOT and to Scott Bridge Company by claiming stopping the project hurts those building the new bridge. However, Pool said Cooper knew of the lawsuit and should have paused work until the court proceedings were finished.
“No one forced Director Cooper to instruct ALDOT or Scott Bridge to proceed full steam ahead on the Cooper Bridge while BCBC’s motion for a preliminary injunction was pending, and there was a substantial risk that work on the project would be enjoined,” stated Pool. “Director Cooper could have exercised his substantial discretion as ALDOT Director to instruct his staff and the Scott Bridge Company to pause work on the Cooper Bridge pending the outcome of BCBC’s motion. He declined to do so, instead forcing BCBC to file this preliminary injunction motion. The Court rejects Director Cooper’s attempt to manufacture harm to ALDOT based on his own decision to cause work on the Cooper Bridge to continue while BCBC’s motion has been pending.”
The attorneys representing ALDOT, Balch & Bingham, have not yet responded to a media request. A motion to stay the decision pending an appeal has been entered.
Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon has been against the bridge project from the beginning. He told 1819 News he wants what is best for taxpayers and is happy about the ruling. He said he is still working to go through all of the details of the judge's decision before making any further statements.
Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said the ruling is unfortunate.
“The need for a new, free bridge is obvious," said Craft in a statement. "Baldwin County is the fastest-growing county in Alabama, and our beach communities bring in more than 8 million visitors annually. The Highway 59 bridge is F-rated and woefully over capacity nine months out of the year. On peak travel weekends – like this weekend – it can take over one hour to drive the 11 miles from north of Foley to Beach Boulevard. This is a problem not just for tourist traffic flow, but for residents going to work, emergency vehicles taking people to the hospital, first responders en route to an incident, and for hurricane evacuations.”
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