The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) has responded in court to claims that a bridge project in south Alabama was formulated in bad faith.

The Baldwin County Bridge Company (BCBC), which operates the Beach Express toll bridge, allowing drivers to avoid Highway 59 on their way to the beach, sued ALDOT and director John Cooper after learning of plans to build a new bridge nearby. The BCBC claims that the bridge, which would be only one mile from the toll bridge, could lead to bankruptcy and could put the company out of business.

However, ALDOT says there is a need for the new bridge to alleviate traffic. Many locals agree there are traffic issues, especially in the summer months. Scott Bridge Company won a bid to build the bridge and is also named in the lawsuit, although there are no claims against the bridge company.

The BCBC said it could help solve the traffic problem and offered to expand the toll bridge by building a four-lane twin span. In a hearing in Montgomery Circuit Court Wednesday. Representatives for the BCBC said those improvements would take 18 months. BCBC filed for a preliminary injunction, alleging that Cooper worked against them and tried to crush a deal made between the bridge company and the state 23 years ago. However, in a court filing, Cooper’s attorneys from Balch & Bingham LLP stated that BCBC’s claims are “just bad claims” and should be dismissed. The attorneys believe Cooper is entitled to sovereign immunity because the state has given him the power to make decisions concerning transportation in Alabama.

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“Whether a bridge is necessary, and where it should be built are questions reserved to him and him alone under clear Alabama law,” the latest filing states. “BCBC’s claims do not seriously contest that.”

In response to BCBC's claims that Cooper doesn't have experience in the field of this type of development and has overridden expert opinion on the project, Cooper's attorneys said before being appointed director by Gov. Robert Bentley in 2011, he had a "background in finance, accounting and corporate leadership, notably serving as CEO of Avocent Corporation, located in Huntsville, from 2003-08, which company is a global provider of information technology infrastructure management, were among the reasons why Governor Bentley asked him to serve the State as Director of ALDOT."

BCBC representatives have also requested to see any traffic studies concerning the bridge development. Vincent Calametti, who was previously employed by ALDOT for 33 years testified saying he was unaware of any traffic studies to affirm ALDOT's position. Calametti spent six years as division engineer for ALDOT's Southwest Division and played a key role in the development of the Mobile River Bridge. He left ALDOT to take a job as Major Projects Director for the City of Mobile in 2019.

ALDOT attorneys added that the company that owns BCBC never had any reason to believe a new bridge was not a possibility and that it is the responsibility of ALDOT to do what’s best for transportation.

"In 2018, DIF Capital Partners, a Netherland-based business, bought American Roads LLC, which was the sole owner of BCBC," attorneys stated. "Before DIF bought American Roads, DIF knew that BCBC's license was not exclusive, and that other bridges could be built along the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) in competition with BCBC’s bridge. DIF also knew before it purchased American Roads that the Alabama Department of Transportation had a project to build a public free bridge across the ICW that would compete with BCBC’s private toll bridge.

"At DIF’s first meeting with Director Cooper in 2018—which occurred before DIF purchased American Roads—Director Cooper told DIF, emphatically, that he was building a free public bridge across the ICW because he wanted to ensure that DIF knew ALDOT had a competing free public bridge project on the drafting table. He did not want DIF to come back later and say 'If only we’d known you were building a competing free bridge, we would not have purchased the toll bridge.' To the contrary, once DIF was told about ALDOT’s new public free bridge, it admittedly evaluated its investment decision with that knowledge in mind, and decided purchasing the toll bridge was a good investment for its DIF Investment Fund V, notwithstanding ALDOT’s plan to build a free public bridge about a mile west of BCBC’s private toll bridge."

The complaint by BCBC, attorneys for Cooper say, are "run-of-the-mill" complaints that "government action is unfair." However, they say what is unfair is taking money for damages from taxpayers and not allowing drivers to Gulf Coast beaches to have more options.

Hearings in the case will continue through Friday.

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