Lawsuit: Alabama transportation director ‘abused his position’ and had a ‘personal vendetta’ against toll bridge operator
The director of the state Department of Transportation has been on a mission to destroy operators of a private toll bridge in Baldwin County for years, according to a new civil lawsuit filed Thursday in Montgomery Circuit Court.
The 25-page lawsuit filed by attorneys representing the Baldwin County Bridge Company LLC (BCBC) is the latest twist in an ongoing dispute over the construction of new bridge lanes to help ease congestion on Alabama beaches. .
The lawsuit targets Alabama Department of Transportation Director John Cooper and his role in overseeing the construction process for a new bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway. The lawsuit alleges Cooper “abused his position” as head of the agency for the past 9 years, and claims he has a “personal vendetta” against the Bridge Company, and was trying to put the bankrupt company.
The complaint also alleges that Cooper, over the past four years, negotiated with BCBC in bad faith as the state sought to add additional lanes on the Alabama coast, which continues to see an increase in visitors. every year and additional traffic jams.
“It’s a sad day in Alabama when we turn against those who came to the table to provide us with infrastructure at a time when we couldn’t afford it,” said attorney Joe Espy III, who represents BCBC in the case. in an emailed statement. “This lawsuit is about much more than just damages to the Bridge Company. The damage these actions will cause to the reputation of the state in the way we turned on a private partner, threatening, intimidating and sending them to bankruptcy will be a cold wind for anyone looking to partner with Alabama in the future.
A spokesperson for ALDOT called the lawsuit ‘frivolous’ and accused BCBC of being a ‘foreign-owned toll bridge company ‘interested in protecting its profits’ without regard to people’s waiting times in traffic”.
“This frivolous lawsuit will waste taxpayers’ money and seek to delay a local improvement project that the area clearly needs,” said ALDOT spokesman Tony Harris, who argued ALDOT negotiated good faith with the Bridge Company. “Any delays will only exacerbate traffic problems on the Gulf Coast and hurt the people of Baldwin County.”
Says Harris, “Like the many Alabamians and visitors who are tired of sitting in traffic on the Alabama coast, we look forward to the completion of the free public bridge.”
The complaint also claims that ALDOT’s new project – a two-lane bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway in Gulf Shores and 1.1 miles west of the toll bridge in Orange Beach – is “unnecessary” and is being built without any prior traffic studies.
“Director Cooper’s cavalier abuse of power from his office, including the decision to bully BCBC into lowering its tolls and ultimately abandoning its bridge, proceeds to unnecessary new bridge, attempts to doom BCBC ownership and the property of other Alabamians, and destroying or substantially undermining the value (of the toll bridge) directly and seriously harmed BCBC,” the lawsuit states.
The complaint asks a judge to file an injunction to prohibit the construction of the new Intracoastal Waterway bridge.
He also accuses Cooper and ALDOT of pursuing “reverse conviction” against the Bridge Company, which is done whenever a government entity seeks control of a property without formal conviction proceedings and without compensation. BCBC seeks compensatory damages and other related expenses.
The filing of the lawsuit comes four days after Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft at the Gulf Shores City Council meeting on Monday, announced that ALDOT was executing a contract to begin construction of the new Intracoastal Waterway Bridge.
ALDOT then confirmed on Tuesday that it was issuing a “notice of lawsuit” with Opelika-based Scott Bridge Company for $51.85 million. A provision in the notice said the project was due to start next week and the deadline for completion was January 1, 2026.
The new two-lane Intracoastal Waterway Bridge is expected to be the fourth bridge bringing motorists to Alabama’s Pleasure Island area, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. The other three are the WC Holmes Memorial Bridge (Alabama State Route 59), the Perdido Pass Bridge in Orange Beach, and the Toll Bridge.
The new bridge project has driven a wedge between the leaders of Alabama’s two coastal cities. He is backed by Craft, but Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon – in interviews in recent months – called it a ‘mess-up’ that won’t reduce traffic congestion as the bridge doesn’t include a direct path to the beaches. The new bridge would end on Alabama State Route 180, or Canal Road.
The BCBC lawsuit argues that without a direct route to the beaches, traffic on the new bridge “would add to congestion on Canal Road/(Route) 180 on the south side of the Intracoastal Waterway, not decrease it.”
The BCBC lawsuit claims that Cooper allowed construction of the new bridge without traffic studies, or studies to verify whether past claims about toll avoidance were true.
Cooper in recent years claimed that motorists avoided the toll bridge because they didn’t want to pay a toll, which led to increased congestion along Highway 59.
“ALDOT could have performed a host of studies to determine whether or not vehicles took the detour proposed by Director Cooper due to a desire to avoid tolls,” the lawsuit states. “But ALDOT did not perform any of these studies and made no effort to verify the traffic flow in the area.”
Alternative plan and agreements
BCBC had been lobbying for ALDOT to approve his alternate planwhich was publicly launched on September 1.
Under this proposal, an additional bridge span would be built along the toll bridge until the new Intracoastal Waterway Bridge was built. BCBC also proposed additional roadway and signage improvements, construction and expansion of a multi-lane toll plaza, and other infrastructure improvements.
As part of the plan, the Bridge Company agreed to remove all tolls imposed on Baldwin County residents. Most bridge users pay a one-way toll fare of $2.75.
The lawsuit also alleges that ALDOT is trying to nullify previous agreements BCBC made with the cities of Orange Beach and Foley and the Baldwin County Commission, to build the toll bridge. The toll bridge was opened in 2000.
The agreements began in the late 1990s, and one granted BCBC the right at any time – and at its absolute and exclusive discretion – to expand the toll bridge by building additional lanes.
In 1999, the “Tripartite Agreement” was reached and gave BCBC the “perpetual” right to collect tolls and set toll rates on its bridge.
A subsequent “Access Management Plan” then required that prior to the construction of any new access point to the Foley Beach Express, “a professionally recognized traffic consultant with a toll facility and/or of traffic engineering experience…reviews all connectivity requests to the project,” the lawsuit states.
The complaint alleges that the toll bridge has not achieved sufficient volumes to warrant a new span over the Intracoastal Waterway, a notion that has been disputed in the coastal area that is awash in traffic jams during peak tourism months. .
If a threshold of 2 million vehicles in invocation months is reached – or 6 million vehicles in a year – the complaint says BCBC is “forced” to build a new span at no cost to the state or Orange Beach.
“In other words, a traffic congestion solution that does not include the new Cooper Bridge has been contractually addressed,” the complaint states.
The lawsuit says Cooper, in negotiations over the past few years, said he felt the initial deals with local government agencies and with BCBC were a “bad deal” that he “subjectively didn’t like.”
Harris, the ALDOT spokesman, said BCBC “refused to agree to any demands to alleviate traffic congestion and instead demanded a 50-year guarantee that no more bridges would be built in the area, whatever the need.”
Says Harris, “This company wanted a promise that their monopoly, which never worked, would be protected for another 50 years. It’s hard to imagine a worse idea.
This story was updated at 3:56 p.m. on October 20, 2022 to include a statement from Joe Espy III. This story was also updated at 4:28 p.m. on October 20, 2022, to include comments from ALDOT spokesperson Tony Harris.