SPANISH FORT – On Thursday night as the crowd grew at 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center, Grace McCloskey, 12, looked around sheepishly. Politicians waited in the wings. Attendees discussed the drama swirling around the proposed Mobile Bay Bridge.
But why was she here?
The Stockton preteen shrugged and quietly replied, “the toll.”
Nearby her mother, Margaret McCloskey, said the family of four regularly attends government meetings.
“They are going to have to learn to be adults and be part of the community,” she said and added, pointing to her daughter, “She’ll be 67-years-old when this is finally paid for.”
Grace said, “I’ll be broke.”
Margaret added, “And I’ll be dead. She has a whole lifetime ahead of her of dealing with this.”
Thursday night’s public hearing regarding the I-10 Mobile Bay Bridge project wasn’t just an impromptu civics lesson. It was the night that residents of Mobile and Baldwin counties, young and old, from all walks of life came together to agree on one issue: the toll had to go.
Lou Campomenosi, head of the Common Sense Campaign tea party which hosted the two-hour event told the standing room only crowd, “This is a non-partisan issue. This is a Gulf Coast issue and we all need to be fighting this.”
Nearly 150 people squeezed into the meeting space and another 150 were left waiting outside to listen via livestream.
Campomenosi said the goal was to collect solutions to present to Governor Kay Ivey and make her understand the potentially crushing impact the proposed $6 toll could wreak on locals.
State officials have proposed the toll to help pay for the $2.1 billion I-10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project, a 55-year public-private partnership (known as a P3). Tolls would be assessed on both the 215-foot high bridge and the Wallace Tunnel while the Spanish Fort Causeway, Bankhead Tunnel and Cochrane-Africantown USA Bridge could still be crossed for free.
How the toll would devastate families
One by one, members of the crowd stood and explained how the proposed $6, one-way toll would not just impact but potentially shatter their lives.
Volunteers said they would travel less for charity work.
Employees said they would have to quit jobs they love and find new work in their home county.
Gravely ill veterans said they would not be able to travel to doctors and the new Veterans Administration hospital for care.
The family of a foster child born addicted to drugs explained how they had to cross the bay several times a day for weeks to tend to the baby while it was being treated as an in-patient. Future foster parents may not be able to bear the extra cost, they said.
Families with elderly or needy relatives said they would never be able to continue to help provide care to their loved one who lived across the water.
Retirees on fixed incomes said they would consider selling their homes and leaving the area.
One Daphne resident said a year’s worth of daily tolls would amount to more than he pays in property tax or his auto insurance policy during a calendar year.
Story after story. Heartbreak after heartbreak, they took to the microphone, some of their voices shaking.
“This can be more devastating in so many ways for those already in devastating circumstances,” one Daphne resident told the crowd. “For those who cannot speak for themselves, I say, no more tolls.”
Many of the personal stories were punctured by applause and calls for the tolls to end and even for Ivey’s impeachment.
At the end of the night, Sen. David Sessions (R – Grand Bay) summed up the devastation.
“Instead of building a bridge, ALDOT is building a wall between two counties,” he said.
Finding other ways
In addition to sharing stories, audience members shared ideas and solutions.
They suggested selling bonds or stretching the terms of the loan to finance the project over a longer period and lower the annual payment and therefore lighten the toll.
Campomenosi said the ultimate goal was to have the issue tabled until after the 2020 election when federal funds might be more readily available to pay for the bridge.
When one attendee asked if cities could legally stop tolls from being assessed on roads within their city limits Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood said cities had no such authority. Instead, they could only pass a resolution against the toll, a move many municipalities were reluctant to make because of the belief that Montgomery might retaliate.
“There is a fear among all local officials that is in taking a position they will lose funding,” he said as some members of the audience gasped. “All we can do is band together and let our point of view be known.”
Campomenosi said political science 101 means such blackmailing happens, “but that doesn’t make it right.
“The shorthand view is that they will be blackmailed into silence,” he said.
Other attendees focused on the lack of an economic impact study, a document that State Sen. Greg Albritton (R - Range) said may not be required by law, causing many in the crowd to grumble in disgust and anger.
In it together
Several members of the Legislative Delegation were on hand to pledge their support for the 77 percent of area voters who are against the toll. Some members of the crowd suggested traveling to Montgomery for the Oct. 7 meeting hosted by the Alabama Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority. The meeting was scheduled to give the public a chance to present alternatives to the proposed toll.
State Senator Chris Elliott (R - Daphne ) said the meeting should be moved, not the people.
“The bridge is here. The people that are affected are here. The toll authority meeting needs to be done here,” he said as the crowd jumped to a standing ovation.
In the end, every speaker returned to one key point. Members of the public need to continue to contact the governor’s office and make their opinion heard.
Dr. David Gonnella, pastor of Magnolia Springs Baptist Church in Theodore, urged community churches to become instrumental in taking a stand.
“Our poorest members will be hit hard,” he said. “If you are a minister get involved, take a stand. If you are a church member go to your minister and tell them to get involved and don’t take any excuse about not getting involved in political issues ... Jesus addressed political issues of his time.
“If your minister won’t get involved then find a church with a minister who’s willing to take a stand,” he said.