By TODD STACY and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Members of the Joint Legislative Transportation Committee recently asked state transportation leaders about the funding of infrastructure projects, both in the short term and long term.
Under the 2019 gas tax and infrastructure law, known as Rebuild Alabama, the committee was reorganized and charged with closer oversight of the state’s transportation spending. The law increased the state gas tax by six cents a gallon last year and two more 2-cent increases are to come. It also requires attendance of the 12 lawmakers on the committee and Wednesday’s meeting had full attendance.
The committee heard from Don Arkle, chief engineer of the Alabama Department of Transportation, who walked lawmakers through the details of how infrastructure dollars are collected and spent. For the current fiscal year, more than $1.4 billion is expected to be spent constructing roads and bridges, including $840 million from the federal government, $517 million from the state’s road and bridge fund, and $122 million from first phase of the gas tax increase.
State Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Northport, questioned Arkle about why the state doesn’t do life cycle cost analyses for road and bridge construction projects. A life-cycle cost analysis is a planning technique for infrastructure projects that takes into account the various estimated costs throughout the lifetime of a road or bridge, such as maintenance. The method is generally preferred by concrete companies, whose products might be more expensive on the front end but last longer.
Several states use such analysis in their planning, but Alabama does not, Wingo said.
“How do you determine the most cost effective way of building a road if we don’t know the actual cost of that over time?” Wingo asked. “How do we know?”
Arkle explained that, in lieu of a life cycle cost analysis, ALDOT does an “alternative design / alternative bid” process that allows more competition among contractors, including those using both asphalt and concrete materials.
“No matter what we pick, not everybody is going to be happy,” Arkle said.
Wingo also asked whether the state could save money by “bundling” road and bridge projects to provide incentive for more out-of-state companies to bid on them.
“Fifty-four percent of the bids let in the state of Alabama today is to one or two bidders. We ought to require five,” Wingo said.
Arkle said that, while some projects like the Interstate 59/20 replacement are so massive they must be done by larger companies, bundling smaller projects into one bid could limit which local companies can compete.
“We do tie some projects together for bidding purposes when we think it is cost effective to do so,” Arkle said. “But, if you bundle too much, you block out a lot of your local people. Large contracts actually can work to eliminate competition, so we have to balance that.”
Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, who sponsored the legislation reconstituting the Joint Legislative Transportation Committee, said he was pleased with how the meeting went.
“We had a great turnout today, so the legislation appears to be working,” Chambliss said. “You know, the whole point is to exchange information. ALDOT was here and they gave us a lot of information, and between now and the next meeting, we have time to review it.
“For example, today (ALDOT) gave us their draft annual report. Under the old rules, we would have gotten it after it was final. Now, we have an opportunity to look at it and have input before it’s final, and that’s important. ”
State Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said he thought the implementation of the Rebuild Alabama plan was going well “so far,” and that he hoped to see more projects when the weather improves.
“In terms of the dollars that we are seeing come into the coffer, I think it’s very positive,” Singleton said. “We’ve been having a pretty rainy season, so we’re not seeing as much pavement cranking up. But when we do see it, I think we’ll see the benefit of what the people allowed us to do with the Rebuild (plan).”
At least one member of the Alabama Legislature says there is not enough long-term planning at ALDOT. Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, pre-filed for the legislative session House Bill 19 to create a five-member state transportation commission appointed by the governor. That commission would appoint the state transportation director.
“We’re building roads now that should have been built 15 years ago,” Pringle, who is running for Congress in the state’s southernmost district, told Alabama Daily News this month.
“We’re proud of our five-year plan. We need a 10-20-30-40 and 50-year plan,” he said.
He compared his proposed transportation commission to the Alabama Port Authority, created by lawmakers in 2000 to oversee the Port of Mobile.
“I have seen the port grow and change over the years do to long-term leadership,” Pringle said.
The director of transportation is appointed by the governor. Current director John Cooper has been on the job since January 2011.
Pringle sponsored the same bill in 2018. It was approved in a committee, but didn’t get a vote in the House. This year, Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, is sponsoring the same bill in the Senate. He said he’s gathering co-sponsors.
Tony Harris, government relations manager for ALDOT, said similar bills have been introduced in the legislature occasionally since the administration of former Gov. Bob Riley.
He said ALDOT has a State Transportation Improvement Plan published online as required by the federal government. It shows projects through 2023. But planning goes further than that, he said.
“We have identified construction needs that would total probably $10 billion and that amount would represent a 20-year horizon based on current funding levels,” Harris said.