MONTGOMERY - By a 28-6 vote, the Alabama Senate has approved Governor Kay Ivey's Rebuild Alabama plan for increased infrastructure funding on day five of a special legislative session the governor called. Governor Kay Ivey has now signed the measure into law.
According to reporting from our sister paper, The Journal Record in Hamilton, the plan calls to raise gas taxes by 10 cents over the next three years and is expected to raise $320 million annually. The last increase in the tax was over 25 years ago. The funds would be distributed to the Alabama Department of Transportation (67 percent), counties (25 percent) and municipalities (8 percent).
Alabama Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed (R-Jasper) said it was a major step toward modernizing Alabama’s crumbling infrastructure.
“This plan will dramatically improve the safety of Alabama’s roads and bridges. In 2016, Alabama had the second highest rate of traffic fatalities in the nation. One in six Alabamians cross a structurally-deficient bridge on their daily commute — and that’s unacceptable, especially when 375,000 school kids are on a bus every day,” Reed said. “Governor Ivey’s proposal will help us rebuild Alabama’s infrastructure and make travel safer for school buses, truck drivers and families.
“This is about improving quality of life for every single community in Alabama — every town and county in the state will benefit with additional resources for roads and bridges,” Reed continued. “As a fiscal conservative, I could only vote for Governor Ivey’s plan because there were provisions in the bill that not a single dime from this fund could be spent on benefits or salaries for DOT employees — this money is for infrastructure and infrastructure alone.”
Senator Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville) sponsored Governor Ivey’s proposal in the legislature’s upper chamber.
“Among our neighboring states, Alabama is dead last in funding for infrastructure, and that has started to affect our ability to compete for high-paying jobs with Florida, Tennessee and Georgia,” Chambliss said. “There are 16,000 bridges in Alabama and over 7,000 of those are 50 years and older. That endangers our citizens and impairs our economic competitiveness. Every county in Alabama will see road projects go up within the next year or so with the funding from this plan — and that improved road system will make it easier to recruit new industries to Alabama.”
Reed said the additional funds in Ivey’s plan for deepening the Port of Mobile would benefit the entire state.
“Last year, the Port of Mobile was the export point for $2 billion worth of Alabama coal to the world’s markets, and coal accounts for 40% of the Port’s total exports,” Reed observed. “Cotton farmers, timber landowners, poultry farmers and coal producers across the state will all benefit from improvements to the Port of Mobile.”
The legislature also took steps to increase oversight and accountability for the Alabama Department of Transportation by passing Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Chambliss, which strengthens the Alabama Legislative Joint Transportation Committee, which has responsibility for reviewing the long-term plans and budget for ALDOT.
Chambliss’s plan specifies that the Joint Transportation Committee will meet four times per year at the Statehouse and mandates that members will be automatically removed if they miss two meetings in a calendar year.
Senate Bill 2 requires that ALDOT use objective criteria in prioritizing what road projects will be paved next and that the criteria be made available to the public. Further, SB2 specifies that the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), ALDOT’s long-range plan of road and bridge projects in Alabama, be publicly available on ALDOT’s website, along with any updates of the STIP plan.
On March 8, the Alabama House of Representatives approved the plan on an 84-20 vote. House District 17 Representative Tracy Estes was one of the many yes votes on the bill.
In an interview with The Journal Record, Estes called the vote a long-term investment in the state, a vote which he said has caused “brutal and heartbreaking” criticism of him and his family. However, he stands behind his decision, saying that he is confident that he gave the most-informed vote possible. “This is part of my new job,” Estes said. “Folks are passionate about this issue because it hits each of us where it hurts—the wallet. Estes stressed that, contrary to rumor, the plan would not affect the Education Trust Fund. Estes told the Journal Record that the tax increase would allow Alabama to maintain pace with the almost 30 other states who have passed similar legislation. The tax revenue raised by the tax plan would provide needed funds to match federal monies that President Donald Trump is anticipated to designate for infrastructure, Estes added. One of the most critical portions of the legislation, Estes explained, is $150 million in bonds being sold for improvements at the Port of Mobile. This will be matched with $450 million from Sen. Richard Shelby in Washington, D.C., who is seated as chairman of the senate appropriations committee. Estes said that the improvement of the port will benefit the entire state, making it the finest on the Gulf Coast and accommodate larger ships at a larger volume—ships which currently have to wait to enter the port due to backups. “I have personally witnessed multiple ships waiting in the Gulf of Mexico—often up to three days,” Estes said. “As they idle, they burn fuel and pass this cost along to customers.” The representative said that products in House District 17—timber, poultry, furniture and coal, are shipped through the Mobile port. Estes also said Mercedes-Benz has made it clear to leadership in the House of Representatives that there will be no further plant expansions at their facility in Vance until the state addresses its infrastructure. He says other companies are sending the same message. “Automakers in Alabama are currently transporting their vehicles to South Carolina and Virginia to ship internationally,” Estes said. “Those monies are being paid to those states to use their ports, instead of the money being paid to Alabama.” In an interview with WSFA 12 News on Wednesday, March 6, Gov. Kay Ivey, who is championing the gas tax proposal, said that all Senate and House freshmen were “vetted” by legislative leadership and were encouraged not to run if they were not in favor of increasing taxes for infrastructure. Estes assured that he was never approached by the governor, a member of her staff, the Speaker of the House nor any other official in Montgomery during his campaign. He also said that he was never contacted following his election, either. Estes said a member of the governor’s staff reached out to him by phone two weeks prior to the vote to ask him where he stood on the issue. “I said I could see the definite need, but would not commit until I saw the final draft in writing,” Estes said. The representative said that members were provided with an email copy of the bill on Friday, March 1—four days prior to the governor’s State of the State address. Estes said that he met privately with the governor on Thursday, March 7, in her office. “Based on what I had seen at the time, I felt I could support the bill, but was still awaiting any final amendments which might be added from the House floor during debate the following day,” Estes said. Estes said that more time to consider the referendum and hold town hall meetings with constituents and inform them of the plan’s details would have been preferable. However, due to the special session being called, legislators were not given that opportunity. The state fuel tax is currently 18 cents for gasoline and 19 cents for diesel.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.