Fourteen Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) contracts worth well over $100 million are still being delayed over three weeks since legislators placed holds on the contracts over a dispute about the West Alabama Corridor at a committee meeting.
Legislators and ALDOT officials have met multiple times since the Contract Review Committee meeting on September 7. However, State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Josephine) told 1819 News on Thursday he still hadn't received a clear answer from ALDOT officials or the Gov. Kay Ivey administration about how much the project will cost.
"I'm worried we don't have a budget. We don't have a number. I've asked what's this project worth? Is it worth $1 billion? Is it worth $1.2 billion? Is it worth $1.5 billion? Is it worth $2 billion? What's it worth? What are we willing to spend on it? I think that's a perfectly reasonable question to ask and to know the freaking answer to on the front end before you go spend $90 million on engineering a project that you don't have a budget for," Elliott said.
Elliott said, "I continue to ask for what I think is a very basic number and I still don't have a good answer. I think it's a reasonable expectation that we have a budget number before we get started and today we don't have that."
"I've got to at least get a budget number," Elliott said. "I'm a contractor and before I do a project we come up with a rough budget. I mean, before a project is designed we come up with a rough budget and you make certain financing decisions. Does the customer…have the ability to pay for this? Can they fund this project and how are we going to fund this project? Those are basic pre-construction conversations that we have. Unfortunately, ALDOT is not having those and the administration is not having those."
Ivey discussed the project at a lunch meeting on September 19 with the Kiwanis Club of Montgomery. She explained how the project will provide interstate connectivity to rural counties lacking a four-lane-to-interstate highway, ultimately creating a four-lane connection between Mobile and Tuscaloosa. The project is being paid for with Rebuild Alabama Act funds, a state gas tax increase passed in 2019 by the legislature.
"The bottom line is I'm the governor of all the people including those in the Black Belt and in West Alabama," Ivey told reporters. "That area…does not have four-lane access to the interstate so it's the right thing to do, and so we're going to press on in expanding U.S. Highway 43 to a four-lane from Mobile to Tuscaloosa,"
Ivey described the West Alabama Corridor as a "vital road project to open up economic development" while "improving the lives of thousands of Black Belt residents."
ALDOT Chief Engineer Edward Austin said in a letter to Contract Review Committee Chair State Sen. Dan Roberts (R-Mountain Brook) on Tuesday, "While we are not aware of any role the Committee has with respect to the manner in which highway projects are financed, there seems to be continuing concern from some Committee members as to why there is no involvement of federal funds for the West Alabama Corridor Project."
"There is a pervasive misconception that federal funds are unlimited for highway projects so long as the State can provide at least 20 percent of the total cost of any project proposed," Austin said. "In fact, there is a finite amount of federal funds provided to Alabama each fiscal year. With input from local leaders and citizens, ALDOT uses those funds to plan and submit projects to the Federal Highway Administration for review. Once reviewed and finalized, those projects are released to bid and contracted. To be very clear, ALDOT spends all available federal funds on highway projects every year. With specific regard to the West Alabama Corridor Project, we have been clear that it is the type of project that qualifies for federal funds. However, when relying on limited federal funding, the reality is that construction on major projects is piecemealed as funds become available (usually over the span of multiple federal-aid funding acts)."
Austin said in the letter, "The Rebuild Alabama Act provides the funding for an achievable, viable and reasonable way to proceed that will allow us to complete the West Alabama Corridor Project more quickly."
Roberts said on Thursday, "Excellent meeting, many questions and answers, good discussion, is how I would characterize the meeting" with ALDOT officials on Wednesday.
State Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) told 1819 News on Friday he was skeptical of the economic development claims about the project due to "interstates going through rural distressed counties that have lost population across the state and those interstates that have been there for decades don't seem to have moved the needle much at all."
"I've heard for decades now from small-town mayors and county commissioners, etcetera, 'If only we had a four-lane highway, economic development would follow.' It's a lot more than a road," Orr said. "What's the education system at the local level? What's the crime situation at the local level? What's the quality of life situation at the local level? It's a whole set of factors and based on my pointing to these other counties that have these interstates going through them and no development…why do we think that this is going to be any different?"
Elliott placed a hold of up to 45 days on a $75 million ALDOT design-build contract with Brasfield & Gorrie for the West Alabama Corridor project on September 7 at a Contract Review Committee meeting over financing and cost concerns on the project. In response to Elliott's hold on the West Alabama Corridor contract, State Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) put an up to 45-day hold on the remaining 13 ALDOT contracts on the committee's agenda at the meeting because the West Alabama Corridor is "vital to my district."
Legislators on the Contract Review Committee can't stop a contract from ultimately moving forward, but they can block it from proceeding for up to 45 days. The hold can be released at any time by the legislator.
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