Fourteen Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) contracts held up over a dispute last week about the future of the West Alabama Corridor project are still on hold nearly a week later.
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 last week at a Contract Review Committee meeting. 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.
The projects were still on hold after a meeting between ALDOT officials and three legislators on Wednesday.
"The short answer is nothing is resolved," Elliott told 1819 News on Wednesday. "We had [ALDOT Chief of Communication and Government Relations] Tony Harris in there and [ALDOT Assistant Chief Engineer of Policy and Planning] Clay McBrien. We started getting in the weeds on the financing side of things and they were like, 'That's really a [ALDOT Director John] Cooper question and an [ALDOT Chief Engineer] Ed Austin question so we talked about delivery method and, you know design-build as a whole and how they're segmenting the project and some questions answered about how they're designing it. My bigger concern continues to be the financing. How much of the allowable Rebuild Alabama money they're going to be able to borrow. They weren't in a spot to answer some of those questions so everything remains on hold until we can get the right folks to answer the finance questions."
Harris told 1819 News, "ALDOT was pleased to meet with three members of the Contract Review Committee Wednesday morning to discuss the importance of the West Alabama Highway and to answer their questions."
"We are prepared to continue discussions and provide any information we can. The West Alabama Highway has strong support as it will open up economic development opportunities and connect Alabamians in this under-served part of the state to jobs, medical care and other necessities," Harris said.
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 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.
Critics of the project, such as Elliott and Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, have predicted the West Alabama Corridor project will cost much more than initially estimated and have been critical of the lack of federal dollars on the project. The initial cost estimate of the project was $760 million. McBrien estimated last week the project might cost $1 billion or $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 last week at a Contract Review meeting.
Ainsworth visited with Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day last week about the project. Day, a supporter of the project, hosted a press conference with other mayors last week, espousing the benefits of the West Alabama Corridor to the surrounding region.
"Governor Ivey, in my opinion, when she announced this initiative, she was doing so in a way to lift up this region, lift up West Alabama from the Shoals to Mobile," Day said at a press conference last week. "Every Governor that campaigned for office since the '50s…everybody from Governor Patterson to Big Jim Folsom to you name it all the way up came over to this side of the state and said, 'If you'll elect me, what am I going to do? I'm going to build that highway. I'm going to make sure we have a West Alabama Highway.' Well, Gov. Ivey put her words into action. That's all it was because every Governor that has held that seat has made the promise. She kept her promise. She told us she was going to do it, and she did it. Now, it's moving forward. The impact that this highway will have on West Alabama is unconscionable."
Ainsworth said in a statement about his meeting with Day last week, "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."
"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," Ainsworth said.
Elliott told 1819 News on Wednesday he also planned to meet with Day soon.
"My message to him is going to be simple, and that is you've got to have some federal funding in this project if you actually want to get it done," Elliott said. "There's no way 140 members of the Legislature are going to allow this Governor or the next Governor to spend 100% of the money that can be borrowed against Rebuild Alabama money to be spent on one project in one part of the state. That's not the purpose of [the] Rebuild [Alabama Act], and that's just not something that's going to be sustainable, and I'm just certain of that. So if you want to build your project, you know, you got to get some federal money on it—the way it is set up now, it is just set up for failure, basically. You may end up with a piece of it. You may end up with this bypass or that segment of road, but you won't end up with the [West Alabama] Corridor because I don't think the Legislature [or] future Governors are going to be able to stand for allowing 100% of what the state is allowed to borrow against the Rebuild gas tax money to go to one spot."
To connect with the author of this story or to comment, email caleb.taylor@1819News.com.
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