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Road rage: Lawmakers battle over funding for highway projects

Several state highway projects have run into a legislative roadblock as lawmakers battle over funding.

In a hearing Thursday of the Legislature’s Joint Contract Review Legislative Oversight Committee, State Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) blocked all Alabama Department of Transportation contracts in retaliation for State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Josephine) blocking construction of the highly controversial West Alabama Corridor project.

The committee can’t kill contracts, but can delay them for up to 45 days. A committee member can hold a contract they have concerns about or need more information.

Elliott’s block on using state gas tax revenue for the West Alabama Highway resulted in England’s hold on $112 million in ALDOT contracts. Committee Chair Sen. Dan Roberts (R-Mountain Brook) allowed the hold on the funding for the project. He said legislators and ALDOT officials will meet next week.

Opponents of the West Alabama five-lane highway project argue that the project is too costly, serves too few people, will max out the state’s borrowing authority for years, and will prevent the state from widening I-65.

Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day hosted a press conference for west Alabama mayors Tuesday to gain support for the project. The group said the project is needed for economic development and so their communities can more easily access services such as health care.

A proposal has been made to widen the four-lane West Alabama Highway to five lanes. Proponents claim that if built it will foster economic opportunities, particularly in counties without a four-lane highway or interstate access.

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson called the expanded highway another route to the region’s economic engine.

“You can just visualize the increased commerce that we will have, and already we have traffic congestion on (Interstate) 65,” he said. “And, yes, there needs to be things done to improve 65. But maybe the quickest and the least expensive thing to do is to fix (U.S.) 43 so that we have two routes coming out of Mobile for one of the biggest economic engines that we have for the entire state to be able to go north to connect to Tuscaloosa, I-22, on to Florence.”

Also, it would add a new north-south route in the state, possibly taking some traffic off I-65.

However, Elliott has expressed concerns that if the state commits to the West Alabama Highway, it will not have the funds or the borrowing capacity to provide matching funds to widen I-65.

Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, Elliott, and other supporters of prioritizing I-65 widening said the traffic snarls are already costing tourist dollars as many Alabamians say that they have cancelled beach trip plans because of the traffic.

The proponents also said more Port of Mobile traffic would use I-65 than a widened West Alabama Highway.

This infuriated England.

“If this is the way we’re doing this,” he said. “Where, all of a sudden we’re going to start counting pennies because this west Alabama project apparently isn’t important enough to treat it like we do other areas, I will ask to hold the rest of the transportation contracts on this agenda, if that’s where we’re headed.”

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