Thursday, November 7, 2019

Governor Kay Ivey still doesn't understand how the "NO TOLLS" thingie works

In remarks made Wednesday at an event celebrating the distribution of oil and gas royalty money, Governor Kay Ivey tried to blame "the local folks" for her decision to kill off the Mobile River Bridge & Bayway Project.
"Until they allow that project to even be considered in their project list, we can't even ask for federal funds or spend what we thought we had. So until the local folks come together and find a way to be included, this project is dead," said Ivey.

She still doesn't understand how this all went down. That project will not ever be considered, and the "local folks" can show you a little somethin' about being included.

To recap: The state proposed to build a state-of-the art architectural wonder to add a new route across the Mobile River and Delta. It was to relieve congestion, which is bad here, but not strangling like bottlenecks in Houston, Baton Rouge and Birmingham. It was to consist of a high rise bridge over the river and a complete replacement of the existing Bayway.

The price tag was a whopping $2.1 billion--twice the previous estimate. Worse, the state also proposed to fund this monster through a $6 one-way toll. The project was hopelessly infeasible and everyone knew it.

Local residents did indeed object to "that project," and made it clear that it was unacceptable. When their early, disorganized objections were met with an attitude of cool obstinance from the Governor and ALDOT, the public joined forces via social media. State Auditor Jim Ziegler and a handful of his fellow toll fighters formed the Block the Mobile Bayway Toll Group on Facebook and invited the public to join. Within three months, the group membership had reached 50,000 members and the group's message of "NO TOLLS!" could no longer be ignored. Bumper stickers. T-shirts. Peaceful demonstrations. Coordinated messages on local talk radio and across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Grassroots politics in its purest form.

It's worth noting that citizens were never unanimous in opposition to a new bridge or new bridge plus Bayway modernization plan. Most understood that a new route across the river and delta would be needed sometime in the un-distant future. It was the toll plan that caused the uproar (see 'Tolling for the Mobile River Bridge is a symptom, not the problem'). The local economy was at risk of suffering permanent hardship and any Gulf Coastian with a family budget could smell it.

There were other plans that should have been considered; plans that weren't calling for a Taj Mahal structure that could have been feasible. The state never told the whole truth on why such a mega-project was the only and best solution, and this lack of willingness to consider public opinion stuck in the people's craw.

Tone deaf ALDOT tried unsuccessfully to reestablish control of the narrative with pointless press releases, strawman "fact checks" and bold statements of "No tolls? No bridge!" A contentious meeting between local elected officials and ALDOT representatives and consultants ended poorly when ALDOT Director John Cooper stormed away from the dais with the now famous smart-assed comment: "You've caught it; hope you can skin it."

They weren't budging. Governor Ivey and ALDOT were going forward with the project as proposed--tolls and all. Confident that they wouldn't be stopped, they finalized the environmental clearances and began the preliminary processes to move towards construction.

That's when the Facebook group found and adroitly used the obscure provision in an obscure federal law that required local approval of the project in both their short and long range transportation plans. That approval was first tabled by the Mobile County side of the bay and then blocked completely on the Baldwin County side a week later. No local approval meant no federal funding, which meant the project could not move forward at all.

The night of the Baldwin County vote, Governor Ivey released a statement declaring the project "dead." 

The "local folks" simply blew a whistle to stop the toll bridge. That project will stay stopped. That one is dead. What about the other alternatives, like the 50-year retrofit?

To this day, members of the Block the Mobile Bayway Toll group and the local elected officials are open to alternatives for a new route between Mobile and Baldwin County. But based on Governor Ivey's comments Wednesday, the state remains unwilling to discuss toll-free alternatives. Like the 50-year retrofit. Oh, well.

That's how this works--come up with a plan that solves the congestion problem with no tolls. The Metropolitan Planning Organizations will review it, and we'll talk. We'll talk a lot, and you'll listen. A lot. Or...


The Four Score


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