ALDOT contracts put on hold amid dispute over West Alabama Corridor funding
Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, sits on the floor of the Alabama Senate on March 7, 2023. Legislators gathered Tuesday for the first day of the Alabama Legislature’s 2023 regular session. He added an amendment to HB1 to direct money to stormwater projects. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)
The Legislative Contract Review Committee Thursday put holds on Alabama Department of Transportation contracts as disputes erupted between lawmakers over the cost of the West Alabama Highway Corridor project.
The arguments began after Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Josephine, began asking Clay McBrien, the assistant chief engineer of policy and planning with the Alabama Department of Transportation, about a nearly $75 million contract with Brasfield & Gorrie, LLC, based out of Birmingham.
The Brasfield & Gorrie contract for design is a new contract for two years for design services as part of the design-build agreement for the West Alabama Corridor. That award is one of 13 contracts that ALDOT submitted for review to the committee that totaled nearly $83 million, most from state funding.
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The West Alabama Highway Corridor project, which began in 2021, aims to build a four-lane highway in the Black Belt, running from Thomasville in Clarke County up to Tuscaloosa, and ultimately connect Mobile to Tuscaloosa. Most of the Black Belt lacks access to interstates. Funding for the project comes from Rebuild Alabama, a program funded by an increase in the state gas tax approved in 2019.
“My concern is primarily the funding mechanism for that project,” Elliott said in an interview after the meeting. “It is a 100% state funding on a federal highway, and my concern is that uses an awful lot of future gas tax revenues, and that we are partitioning, if you will, a lot of that money on one single project instead of using it around the state on a number of different projects.”
Elliott called for the contract to be held. Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, who wanted the contract approved, then threatened to hold all the other contracts for the ALDOT. The committee cannot cancel contracts, but can hold them for several weeks.
Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook, the committee chair, has a standing courtesy to hold every contract that any member of the committee wishes held.
Immediately Elliott asked about the projected cost of the West Alabama Corridor project, which McBrien estimated to be about $800 million.
“With the additional cost, it is going to go higher, probably not that much higher,” McBrien said. “We don’t know for sure until we negotiate each segment of the progressive design build.”
Elliott said he was concerned about the increasing costs of projects as interest rates go up and increase the cost of borrowing. The senator also accused Gov. Kay Ivey’s administration of going over budget on projects.
“This administration has had a habit of getting started on a project that then goes wildly above budget,” he said, citing the costs of building new men’s prisons in Escambia and Elmore counties.
He then asked McBrien if the department sought funding from the federal government to help offset the cost of the project, specifically the contract in question.
“The amount of federal funds that we get is what we handle our normal program with,” McBrien said. “In the way we do Rebuild Alabama, because you all know, it was designed to provide additional funds to do economic development specifically, and that is what exactly, we think, this job fits.”
McBrien said the department is using a progressive design build, so if the price increases to the point that it becomes cost prohibitive, then they can pay a different firm to do the construction. It can also use the same cost estimate to present to other firms when negotiating the price so that it is less expensive as inflation plays a bigger role in the further into the future that construction happens.
It was then that Elliott asked the contract to be held, which drew a quick response from England.
“This is what frustrates me more than anything else,” England said. “All these other projects, Interstate 65, Interstate 10, we are going to find the money. We are going to make it happen. But when it comes to the Black Belt, things change.”
England said the region, which includes his district, needs the project to attract jobs and business to the area, which has been traditionally ignored.
“I am in a position to start holding all these contracts,” he said. “I don’t want to pit different areas of the state against each other, and then say, ‘this project is more important,’ so once again the Black Belt, where a whole bunch of poor folks, and a whole bunch of Black folks, are now having to wait and see if they are worthy enough of the same investments that go into other parts of the state.”
Soon afterwards, Roberts excused the members of the committee into the backroom where he, Elliott and England met for several minutes. Eventually, all agreed to hold every contract until they met with ALDOT to discuss the matter.
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