MONTGOMERY — Two legislators on opposite sides of an ongoing battle over the future of the West Alabama Corridor project delayed all Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) contracts being considered at a committee meeting Thursday afternoon.
In her 2021 State of the State address, Gov. Kay Ivey announced the state would provide a four-lane corridor from Thomasville to Tuscaloosa. According to Ivey, the West Alabama Corridor project will provide interstate connectivity to rural counties that currently lack 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.
Critics of the project say it will cost too much, and funds could go towards widening I-65, which has higher traffic numbers. The initial cost estimate of the project was $760 million.
State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Josephine) 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 Thursday at the meeting.
Elliott told reporters after the meeting on Thursday, "My concern is primarily the funding mechanism for that project. It is 100% state funding on a federal highway. My concern is that uses an awful lot of future gas tax revenues and that we are partitioning if you will a lot of that money on one single project instead of using it around the state on a number of different projects. My further concern is that there is no federal money in that project at all and I think we need to fully explore that."
"I'm just concerned about encumbering future revenues for probably 20 years in a bond market where interest rates are as high as they've historically been. My concern is mainly on the financing side," Elliott said. "I have real concerns on the efficacy side as well, and that's something that is more subjective in nature. So the Department of Transportation, many of the mayors in West Alabama, certainly Rep. (Chris) England) is saying, 'Hey, we need this for economic development.' Well, I would say that you need to look at traffic volume to determine where you need a road.
He continued, "I would say that economic development is not simply driven by whether or not you have a four-lane road nearby, but it's driven by mainly population. Do you have somebody that lives there that can do whatever the work is that you're drawing? In my history on the county commission and others when I'm dealing with economic development, that's the driver. Do you have the workforce ready to go? Then you start looking at other issues from education, medical facilities, all those types of things and all of those are certainly very legitimate problems in the Black Belt that we need to do more to address. But I think it is a fallacy to say that a four-lane road is going to cause economic development in West Alabama. I don't think that's going to happen. I think that all you have to do is look just west of that in Mississippi on U.S. Highway 45 to see that that is in effect not happening."
In response to Elliott's hold on one 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 on Thursday.
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.
"This project is vital to my district and many others, and any delays in this project will continue to contribute to the cost increase that could potentially occur," England said. "This is what frustrates me more than anything else: all these other projects…65, 10… we're going to find the money. We're going to make it happen, but when it goes to the Black Belt things change. This is a vital project. It would connect two major cities that are growing and also attract more people to travel this corridor instead of leaving it and going to a better roadway. It brings money. It brings economic development to an area that has been historically ignored. If we're in a position where now it becomes important to start leveraging projects and making sure that other areas of the state are able to be taken care of instead of just saying you know what West Alabama needs some investment then I'm in a position to start holding up all of these contracts. I don't want to pit different areas of the state against each other and then say well this project is more important so once again the Black Belt where there's a whole bunch of poor folks, a lot of black folks are now having to wait to see if they're worthy enough of the same investment that goes in other parts of the state. I'm just telling you, if we're holding up contracts for the West Alabama projects and the corridor and we're starting to slow that project down because of money then I'm going to start doing the same thing for the rest of them because I've got to advocate for my area too. I've got the same complaints. We've got the same issues. We've got the same problems."
ALDOT Assistant Chief Engineer of Policy and Planning Clay McBrien said at the meeting he'd know more about the total cost of the West Alabama Corridor project toward the end of 2023 or early spring 2024.
"It may be a billion dollars. It may be $1.1 billion. We just won't know until we get into the actual design because that's what a design-build is," McBrien said. "They're going to design with us beside them, and then we're going to do the construction in segments. It's called a progressive design-build where you do it in segments. You look at each segment. You negotiate a completion date for that segment. You negotiate a price for that segment. If we can't agree, if it gets too high and we won't agree, we just take the design from them and we can go let it, or we can do another design build with it and take that information. If this thing gets out of hand, we're not locked into it."
Kyle South, a former Republican state representative from Fayette who resigned his seat over the summer to accept a new role as the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, told 1819 News on Thursday the Highway 43 expansion project is an important issue for the region.
"Infrastructure has been something that's been lacking in the Black Belt. Obviously, me personally, I would like to see that go all the way through the northern part of the state as well," South said. "It's an important issue. I think they've got some details to iron out, but just like it was brought up in that conversation you know we don't need to pit one part of the state against the other. We all fall under the same roof. We need to make sure we're taking care of everybody in this state."
Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth visited with Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day this week about the project. Ainsworth has shared many of the same concerns as Elliott in recent public statements. Day, a supporter of the project, hosted a press conference with other mayors on Tuesday, espousing the benefits of the West Alabama Corridor to the surrounding region.
"I appreciate the hospitality that Mayor Sheldon Day and the city of Thomasville extended to me, and I applaud them for their continuing success in economic development, industrial recruitment, and job creation. Their hard work and efforts are certainly paying off on the local level. It was evident during my visit that the Highway 43 project, known as the West Alabama Corridor, has merit and needs to be completed when the proper funding model is in place," Ainsworth said in a statement on Thursday. "My concern is committing $1.3 billion or more of purely state dollars to the project with absolutely zero federal matching funds being provided. Using state dollars alone and creating a 20-year bond debt cannot be justified from a fiscal, policy, or even common sense perspective. Committing such a large amount of state dollars also takes away funding that could be used for other needed projects across the state, including the widening of I-65."
State Sen. Dan Roberts (R-Mountain Brook) said on Thursday that contract review committee members would meet with ALDOT officials about the West Alabama Corridor next week.
To connect with the author of this story or to comment, email caleb.taylor@1819News.com.
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