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Rep. Bradley Byrne: House-approved transportation and defense funding bills could be a ‘great big deal for Mobile’

Posted on November 5th, 2015

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A new six-year transportation spending bill and a proposal authorizing the construction of three more littoral combat ships highlighted “probably the biggest day I’ve had here for my district” in the U.S. House for Rep. Bradley Byrne.

The approval of both bills, Byrne said, are a two-prong boost for Mobile: The transportation funding could infuse much-needed federal funding into the $850 million Interstate 10 bridge over the Mobile River and a federal defense act could provide more work at the city’s Austal USA shipyard.

“This is a great big deal for Mobile,” said Byrne, R-Fairhope.

The biggest development on Thursday came with the House approval of a $325 billion long-range transportation bill. A similar bill passed the Senate in July, but congressional leaders will have to meet in the coming weeks to hammer out differences before sending it President Barack Obama for approval before a Nov. 20 deadline.

The House passed its transportation bill with a 363-64 vote. Of Alabama’s seven House representatives, only U.S. Reps. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, and Gary Palmer, R-Hoover, voted against it.

Within the latest plan are grants for projects deemed as a “nationally significant freight and highway project,” which Byrne believes the I-10 Bridge would qualify under.

The program would infuse $4.5 billion annually for interstate highways and other roads designated as freight corridors to increase capacity and relieve bottlenecks, and a grant program of more than $700 million a year for the nationally significant highway and freight projects.

Only the first three years of the six-year plan has funds dedicated for the road program, and none of it includes an increase in the federal gasoline tax. The fuel taxes, which are the main source of revenue for the near-depleted federal Highway Trust Fund, were last raised in 1993.

The lack of a funding structure for the entire six years prompted Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to tell The Associated Press that “the result will be more traffic.” He has said $400 billion over six years is minimum needed to prevent traffic matters from worsening.

Byrne said he believes Foxx’s Federal Highway Administration would approve appropriations to Alabama for the development of the bridge if the final proposal is signed into law. Foxx was in Mobile in August to talk about federal options to fund the bridge.

Byrne said an appropriation through the funding bill could be as high as $500 million for the project, and that it could prevent tolling from having to pay for the bridge project and Bayway expansion from Mobile to Baldwin counties.

Byrne said he’s hopeful the I-10 bridge project could benefit from money coming into Alabama from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA) that can be applied for hurricane route construction. GOMESA money, which will be available to the state in 2017 for projects in Mobile and Baldwin counties only, is supposed to go toward coastal conservation, restoration and hurricane projection.

Byrne has doubted the use of tolls for the project, although Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and other state officials have said that that tolling might be an option.The Alabama Department of Transportation is analyzing whether tolls are feasible.

“If you use the GOMESA money, you don’t have to toll it,” Byrne said. “I’m trying to find ways to not toll the bridge. We’d be the only toll roads that the state would build (outside private tolls). I don’t think Mobile should be the only tolled road in the state and I don’t think it would work on the interstate system anyway.”

I-10 Bridge advocates cheered the House approval, saying a finalized long-term transportation program could provide a significant boost for funding the construction of a bridge viewed as a savior for resolving congestion through the four-lane Wallace Tunnel.

Mike Lee, co-chairman of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce’s “Build the Bridge” coalition, said the inclusion of the grant program for projects viewed as “nationally significant” is a big deal for the future of the I-10 Bridge.

“Passage is great news as it provides stable highway funding nationwide that allows states like Alabama to move forward long-term with major plans and projects,” Lee said. “The bridge is, of course, at the forefront of that in Alabama so I couldn’t be happier.”

Wiley Blankenship, president & CEO of the Coastal Alabama Partnership, said he believes the I-10 Bridge “could and should qualify” as a nationally significant project.

“This moves not only coastal Alabama one step closer to addressing traffic, economic and commerce issues but alleviates these issues all along the Gulf coastal states,” Blankenship said.

Byrne credited new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan for advancing the long-term plan. It was the first major bill on the House floor since Ryan took over from former Speaker John Boehner.

He also said rank-and-file lawmakers were also aggressive in its passage.

“You have more people like me in the House being aggressive in getting a long-term bill passed,” he said. “That’s part of what drives it.”

In addition to the road funding program, the House approved an updated version of the National Defense Authorization Act that authorizes the construction of three more combat ships at Austal.

Byrne noted that bill passed 370-58, which is over the two-thirds majority needed to override an Obama veto.

Obama vetoed the original NDAA largely over concerns that he wanted more money spent on non-defense programs. The budget deal approved by Congress last week, Byrne’s staff noted, resolved issues of spending limits “so it is expected that President Obama will sign this version of the NDAA.”

The bill still needs approval from the Senate, which is expected to pass it next week.

“As we approach Veterans Day, there is nothing more important for Congress to be doing than supporting our nation’s military,” Byrne said. “This year’s National Defense Authorization Act is important for the over 4,000 men and women who work at the Austal shipyard in Mobile.”