Poll shows lack of support for I-10 toll bridge, but officials not surprised by results
A new poll commissioned by former congressional candidate Dean Young shows that 68% of those who responded support using “current public funds” to fund the Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project.
Only 31.8% support a “toll bridge” to help generate the funds needed to fund what remains an estimated $2.1 billion project, according to the poll.
But according to the head of the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization, Young’s poll results should come as no surprise.
“I don’t know what poll wouldn’t say a majority of the population wouldn’t want to pay tolls,” said Jack Burrell, Fairhope City Council president and president of the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). “We don’t want to pay a toll either. We are all in favor of that. But we don’t have this option at the moment.
Young, an Orange Beach businessman, told a news conference in Foley on Wednesday that his one-question poll shows southern Alabama residents support using existing state funds to pay the massive project.
The question reads, “Do you prefer a moveable bridge plan that would use current government funds by reducing spending in other areas, or a plan that would create a toll bridge to help generate funds for a new bridge?”
The question was posed to 488 registered voters in Mobile and Baldwin counties. It was conducted by Fast Track Polling & Robocalls, which is owned by Republican State Representative Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals.
“We have to build a bridge,” Young said. “It doesn’t have to be a toll bridge. People don’t want a toll to pay for the bridge. The government is full of money. We have a bunch of misfits there (in Montgomery) who can’t handle the money.
ALDOT spokesman Tony Harris said in a statement that his agency and local leaders had “handed over every stone” for additional funding.
“ALDOT and local leaders in Baldwin and Mobile counties have turned every stone in Washington and Montgomery for additional funding, and we’ve been clear and transparent about what’s available,” he said. “The state has committed to spending at least $250 million on this project in addition to the federal government’s $125 million, which we stand to lose with further delay.”
Search for alternatives
Burrell said without a toll, there doesn’t seem to be any other option to move forward on the massive project. The OPM Rive-Est and Mobile, as part of the project they accepted last month, support a project in which tolls will not exceed $2.50 per car. Their framework also requires that a toll be assessed on new construction, not on existing roads such as the George Wallace Tunnel.
DFO is also calling on state and federal governments to contribute “significant funding” to any I-10 solution. So far, the project has $125 million from a federal Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant to be authorized for construction by September. The state has also committed $250 million. A federal loan of $300 million is also available and would be repaid with toll revenue.
The framework has since been approved by ALDOT.
“We’re going to have a toll-free route and if you don’t want to pay the toll, you can take the toll-free route,” Burrell said. “We did everything we could. We don’t see any money coming from the federal infrastructure bill to pay for the bridge. We don’t see any (additional) money coming from the state.
Young said tolls shouldn’t be part of the equation and referred to recent remarks by Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, who during an appearance before the Mobile County GOP earlier this month , said he felt the project should be a priority for ALDOT, and that “certainly the money is there” to fund it.
“Will Ainsworth was crystal clear,” Young said. “He thinks there are lots of ways to fund this without having a toll bridge. He’s right.
Burrell said if there was funding available, “it’s worth looking into.”
“For Dean, if there’s money hidden somewhere in the state, then tell us where it is,” Burrell said. “We welcome that. We would like to find hidden money. But I don’t know of a magic pot anywhere.
Harris, with ALDOT, said the state is “committed to keeping the tunnels, Africatown Bridge and causeway toll-free, capping tolls at $2.50 for passenger vehicles that choose to use new infrastructure and ensuring that any additional funding that becomes available will be committed to this project to help offset the cost or duration of the toll.
Young said he believed a portion of the 10-cent state fuel tax increase could be used to fund the project. But the gas tax generates about $350 million a year that goes to fund road and bridge improvements statewide and isn’t designed to fund large-scale projects like the I-Bridge. 10.
“Government was not created to make toll bridges,” Young said. “All of this is false.”
Young was particularly critical of Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, who he said had his “lackeys” conduct a separate poll in December that showed there was around 75% support for Project I. -10 revised. That same poll, which was conducted by Chism Strategies and supported by the Coastal Alabama Partnership, surveyed 455 people in Mobile and Baldwin counties.
Wiley Blankenship, president and CEO of CAP, said the Chism Strategies poll was conducted without guidance or support from Ivey’s office.
CAP conducted a similar poll last year that showed support for a bridge that would have been paid for by a toll on trucks only. This project has since been superseded by the current proposal supported by both DFOs.
“We did this poll, and nobody asked us to do it,” Blankenship said of the poll conducted between Dec. 17 and 19. “Our priority at Coastal Alabama Partnership and for the Coastal Zone is to resolve the traffic congestion issues in our region that are hurting us and our economic growth.”
Blankenship said the CAP poll was “apolitical,” though Young called it a “phony poll” that didn’t delve into details about support for a toll.
“We felt like we were doing the right thing asking the questions and doing a legit poll and asking about people being willing to do this if certain scenarios were to occur,” Blankenship said. “We felt the results were obvious and overwhelming that people are ready to accept this (current project proposal).”
Burrell said he thought the survey was useful for DFOs. He noted that the Chism Strategies poll showed that 82.7% of respondents supported new infrastructure along the I-10 Bayway.
“It tells me people don’t want to wait,” Burrell said. “We are eager to find a magic pot that exists or does not exist. In this sense, the survey is useful.
He said Young’s poll is also raising awareness, “which can be a good thing” as local officials continue to seek resources that would help pay off the project’s debt. MPO, according to the framework of the project, supports the removal of tolls once the project is paid for.
But Blankenship said any approach that “robs Peter to pay Paul” in Alabama is politically “non-starter.” He said that by “reducing spending in other areas” there would likely be no bridges being built, given current funding realities.
“This approach ends with no bridge, no Bayway and no solution,” he said. “There is no magic money there.”
Young, however, said he thinks the use of tolls could spread throughout Alabama if they were implemented in southern Alabama. He said if a toll is assessed on the new I-10 bridge, it will serve as a “blueprint” for toll projects elsewhere in Alabama.
Jon Gray, a Mobile-based political strategist with experience in political polling, said he felt that given the question in Young’s poll, the results should have been 100% against using tolls to finance the project.
“I don’t think there’s anybody here who wants to pay a toll,” Gray said. “The age-old question – Do you want to pay a toll or not? – the answer should be 100%. I don’t think (ALDOT director) John Cooper or any mayor suggested people pay the toll. The word “want” should be bolded. Does anyone want to pay a toll? The answer is no.’ The question should be, “Do you want to wait until there’s a free option or do you think we need to go ahead now and pay for it?”
Young’s question does not include any identified alternative to financing the project.
“Spending cuts look good to us as long as (the state) doesn’t cut our money (in southern Alabama),” Gray said. “The people of southern Alabama favor cutting projects in the state budget, except for those here at home. We’ve been waiting for this to happen for about 20 years. Either you pay a toll and build a bridge, or you don’t build a bridge.