In Alabama, a State in Political Turmoil, a Proposed Bridge Sparks Debate

It would make sense that in a state where the heads of government in all three branches are in legal and political peril, officials would be leery about a project that will likely financially benefit past and present politicians -- George Wallace and Robert Craft -- to build a bridge that may not even be needed.
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If you want to see an example of dysfunctional state government, take a look at Alabama.

Governor Robert J. Bentley, a dermatologist who was elected in 2010 as a "family values" Republican, has been accused by the former top officer at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency of having an extramarital affair with his chief adviser, Rebekah Caldwell Mason. Bentley apologized for inappropriate communication with Mason but denied they had a "physical relationship," although recorded sexually-charged telephone conversations between the two were released suggesting otherwise. Nor could Bentley explain how Mason was being paid. Articles of impeachment were filed against Bentley in April in the state House of Representatives for offenses that included corruption in office and neglect of duty.

Impeachment proceedings are expected to move slowly because the Speaker of the House, hard-charging Republican Mike Hubbard, is on trial for 23 felony ethics violations, many of them alleging he used his office for personal profit. In 2010, Hubbard led the efforts of Republicans who took control of the state House for the first time in 136 years, after which they passed strict ethics legislation. Ironically, it was that legislation prosecutors used to file charges against Hubbard -- a law he now argues is "unconstitutional" even though he championed its passage.

To top things off, Roy Moore, chief justice of Alabama's Supreme Court, is suspended, pending a procedure that may see him removed from office, for ordering probate judges to refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Moore, to quote The New York Times, "was removed from the same position in 2003 for refusing to move a two-ton monument of the Ten Commandments from the state judicial building."

To capture the absurdity of the situation in Alabama, The Economist made this observation: "Mr. Bentley could appoint Mr. Moore's successor, if he is not impeached first. Mr. Moore could oversee Mr. Bentley's impeachment, unless he is defenestrated, in which case the governor's appointee might preside. Mr. Hubbard would refer the impeachment to the Senate, depending on the verdict of his own trial, which may feature testimony from Mr. Bentley."

In a climate of general disarray, the state legislature has made some odd moves. One proposed bridge project in Gulf Shores has elicited its share of controversy. In Baldwin County, in South Alabama, the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are located on the Gulf Coast on a long, thin island separated from the mainland by an Intracoastal Waterway spanned by two bridges: I-59, which is free, and the Foley Beach Express, which is privately-owned and charges a $3.50 toll.

Although much of Alabama is struggling economically, the Gulf Coast is booming as people relocate there and tourism flourishes. Indeed, the Gulf Coast is Alabama's most popular tourist destination, experiencing growth for the last several years. Because of the resulting traffic congestion, there has been much discussion about a third bridge being built from the mainland to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. The price tag for that bridge: $30 million.

Plans for the new bridge accelerated after Governor Bentley dedicated $58 million, taken from the $2.3 billion settlement BP was required to pay Alabama for economic and environmental damages caused by the 2010 oil spill, to build a hotel and convention complex near Gulf Shores in Gulf State Park. A road will have to be built to the proposed site of the new bridge -- only a mile and a half west of the toll bridge -- and, perhaps not surprisingly, some land that will have to be purchased for that road belongs to a company partially owned by Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft. The new road will also run adjacent to land owned by the family of former Governor George C. Wallace. These landowners, no doubt, will benefit financially from the construction of the new road.

One local resident, Joe Emerson, has started a social media campaign attacking the proposed bridge. "It's time that we stop just accepting things the way they are," Emerson told one local newspaper. "We need to tell the people in charge that throwing $30 million at a bad idea is a waste of tax money."

Critics of the bridge point out that the state is in such bad financial shape that Bentley has had to borrow money and raise taxes as well as slash Medicaid and education and still Alabama remains the seventh poorest state in the nation. In some of the state's counties more than a third of the residents live in poverty. The last thing the state needs to do, critics say, is spend $30 million on a bridge catering to two affluent vacation communities.

Beyond that, the third bridge may not even be needed, since the toll bridge is underused because many residents don't want to pay the $3.50 toll. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave Alabama's existing infrastructure a D+ for roads and noted that 20 percent of the state's bridges are obsolete or structurally deficient. Obviously, in other parts of the state new roads and bridges are needed for everyday survival, not as a matter of convenience. Bridge critics point out that if a third bridge is built it too should be a toll bridge; that way, much-needed public funds would not be drained and the bridge would be paid for by the people who actually use it.

It would make sense that in a state where the heads of government in all three branches are in legal and political peril, officials would be leery about a project that will likely financially benefit past and present politicians -- George Wallace and Robert Craft -- to build a bridge that may not even be needed. But this is Alabama where, these days, politically speaking, not much makes sense.

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