Bypass, Hwys. 55, 84 work set this year

Published 12:01 am Thursday, February 16, 2012

Highway projects totaling more than $6 billion were recommended by division engineers when this year’s budget was assembled, John Cooper, director of the Alabama Department of Transportation, told Andalusia Rotarians Tuesday.

“Any legislator who looked at the list wouldn’t take anything off,” he said. “But when you only have $100 million per year to spend on these projects, you won’t reach $6 billion quickly.”

When that list was whittled down, the projects left for the 7th Division were completing resurfacing work on the Andalusia bypass; resurfacing and safety work on Hwy. 84 between River Falls and the Conecuh County line; work on the Hwy. 84 corridor through Coffee County; resurfacing of Hwy. 55 in Florala from the state line to the intersection at Country Folks, and from the intersection of Hwy. 331 to Lockhart.

Cooper estimated that the state highway department is $300 to $400 million short of the annual revenue it needs for highway work in the state, and that figure doesn’t touch the work that can’t be funded by each of Alabama’s 67 counties.

Part of the problem is the way that highway work is funded, he said. Gasoline taxes fund highways, but the taxes are based on the number of gallons sold, not the cost of gasoline.

“Revenue peaked in 2007,” he said. “Basically, we are level funded from 2002 levels.”

Because gasoline consumption goes down when prices go up, gasoline taxes go down, and in turn, the highway department has less revenue.

Cooper said when he took over the department in 2011, there were 4,800 employees. There are 4,500 now, he said.

“We cannot solve this problem by efficiency,” he said. “Even if we had no employees, we wouldn’t have the money for the work we need to do, and we couldn’t get it done without the employees.”

He said as transportation director, it is not his role to set policy for taxing, but to work with what he has.

“Sooner or later, something will have to be done (about the way roads are funded), but I can tell you quickly, there is no will to do that now,” he said.

Cooper, who was CEO of the Huntsville-based Avocent Corp., a global provider of information technology infrastructure management, before becoming the highway director, said he has learned much in his year in Montgomery.

“I’ve learned that friends come and go, but enemies accumulate,” he quipped.

He also said that in that year, no one has called him and asked him to strictly enforce the rules.

“They ask me to use common sense in enforcing the rules,” he said. “It’s how we handle the exceptions that becomes important.”