Alabama Democrats propose $1B highway program

AP News
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Posted: Dec 16, 2009 5:28 PM

Democrats in the Alabama Senate will try again in the new year to invest $1 billion from a state savings account in a 10-year boom in road and bridge construction that would be nearly twice the size of the federal stimulus funding for highways.

Sen. Lowell Barron and other members of the Senate Democratic Caucus said Wednesday they will make the proposed constitutional amendment a priority for the legislative session beginning Jan. 12. They promoted it as a twofer that would make roads safer and create needed jobs.

"We in Alabama need to have our own stimulus package," Barron, D-Fyffe, said at a news conference.

Barron tried to pass the same proposal during the Legislature's 2009 session, but it failed in the Senate by two votes in March. The vote was largely along party lines, with Democratic support and Republican opposition.

Barron said much has changed since then because Alabama's unemployment rate has risen from 9 percent in March to 10.9 percent in October, and three vacant seats in the Senate have been filled by special elections.

Senate Minority Leader Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, said Republicans wanted some changes in the bill in March that Barron wouldn't accept, including helping Huntsville provide for an influx from the military base realignment and closure.

Waggoner predicted Barron will pick up some GOP votes in the new year if he is willing to work with Republicans on a few changes.

Barron's bill would take $100 million a year for 10 years from a state savings account known as the Alabama Trust Fund. The fund contains $2.6 billion in royalties that came from natural gas wells drilled along the state's coast. Some of the earnings from the trust fund go toward the state budget each year, which means reducing the size of the trust fund would reduce the earnings.

Barron's bill would give one-fourth of the money each year to city and county governments for local projects. Three-fourths would go to the state Department of Transportation for use statewide.

Gov. Bob Riley's communications director, Jeff Emerson, said the Republican governor hasn't seen the proposal, but generally supports the idea. He said Riley wants to make sure transportation officials decide which projects to build rather than legislators choosing them.

He said Riley would also like to see the Legislature vote each year on whether to withdraw the $100 million.

"That way, we don't end up with a situation where the money has to be withdrawn regardless of the state of the trust fund and the economy," Emerson said.

The Alabama Road Builders Association and the Association of County Commissions of Alabama are supporting the Democrats' proposal.

Lee Gross, president of Ozark Striping Co. and Ozark Safety Services, said Alabama's gas tax is the main source of state revenue for road construction. He said the gas tax was last increased in 1992, and revenue from the tax has been flat during the recession.

Gross said the Democrats' plan would provide much-needed funds about the time the federal stimulus money for roads is running out.

Alabama is getting $513.7 million in stimulus funding for road projects. A recent report prepared by the governor's administration said $17.4 million had been spent by Sept. 30.

DOT spokesman Tony Harris said $435 million of the money has been committed to projects and all of it will be committed by March.

Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the county commissions' group, said the Democrats' proposal is needed because Alabama has 1,400 county bridges that don't meet federal standards and can't be crossed by school buses. "This is a major way for us to address that issue at the county level," he said.

If the Senate Democrats' plan passes in the Senate and House, it would not take effect unless approved in a statewide referendum in November. Barron said that if that happens, money will start flowing to projects in 2011.