ALDOT’s other billion-dollar project

Mobile River Bridge

MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — The Mobile River Bridge and Bayway Project was said to be one of the most expensive and largest projects the Alabama Department of Transportation had ever taken on. The fact is, there is another one that costs twice as much. It too has been stopped, at least for now.

The planned 52 mile, 6 lane highway is called the Birmingham Northern Beltline. When and if it is completed the total price tag will top $5.4 B. That works out to about $104M per mile. But there is one thing this project does not have that the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway would have had it been completed, tolls.

Aerial video from ALDOT’s Northern Beltline website shows construction, the first phase of the project, has already begun. But that construction was stopped in late 2016 when federal funding ran out. No new federal funding has been allocated. There is no talk of a public-private partnership (P3) to finish it, and no talk of tolls.

“And that’s one of the things I think is so frustrating for folks in south Alabama is that the administration at least seems willing to entertain the option of tolling here in coastal Alabama and to push that message, but does not seem willing to do it anywhere else in the state,” said District 32 State Senator Chris Elliott.

The difference is the beltline project is part of a program approved by Congress back in the 1960s. The Appalachian Highway Development System spans several states, with some segments completed and others in various states of construction. All of it was fully funded by the federal government.

Recently, Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens met with Governor Kay Ivy’s chief of staff, former Alabama District 1 Congressman Jo Bonner, about the need to restart construction of the beltline. Stephens says the highway could lead to more than $2.67B in business output per year by its tenth year and create some 14 thousand jobs with an average salary of more than $61,000 a year.

News 5 asked Stephens about both the bridge and bayway project and the beltline.

“Both of them are really the two largest infrastructure projects in the state and both of them are needed,” he said. “And they’re necessary for our continued economic development and the growth of the state.”

But critics, like Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke, says the project presents a number of environmental problems that could forever change tributaries of the Black Warrior River. Brooke calls the highway unnecessary and a ‘road to nowhere.’

“Those at the top who call themselves leaders, who want to take credit for economic development in the state, they’re really out to make themselves rich,” said Brooke.

On the beltline website, ALDOT says construction of the second phase of the project was due to begin this year. But with no federal funding in sight, it appears that is unlikely.

Here is a link to the beltline website.

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