Decatur city officials say increasing congestion will soon warrant a third Tennessee River bridge and that a federal lobbyist is needed to raise up to $4 million for a study on the best location and to begin the process of securing funding for construction.
Mayor Tab Bowling told The Decatur Daily editorial board last week that he wants the city to hire Dayne Cutrell, director of governmental affairs for Maynard Cooper & Gale law firm in Birmingham, for $90,000 on a one-year contract.
Bowling said he plans to propose hiring Cutrell, a former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, at Monday's City Council work session.
“We need someone who can work both sides of the aisle,” Bowling said. “We don’t have the money to fund a study or construction of a bridge so we’re going to need some federal help.”
Council President Jacob Ladner noted that Congress is working on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
“We need a bridge, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so timing is critical,” Ladner said.
Bowling said he talked to retired Rep. Bud Cramer about representing the city, but Cramer already represents Huntsville and expressed concern that representing Decatur would be a conflict of interest. Bowling said he also has talked to U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Auburn, about help with a third bridge.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he suggested to Bowling that the city needs a lobbyist “for the city’s purposes and best interests if the council and mayor felt like they could afford one.”
Orr said the state’s four biggest cities used to be the only municipalities with lobbyists but now smaller cities like Madison are sending lobbyists to Montgomery. He said the local legislative delegation with the state live in or near the city and therefore know what’s going on here.
“When it comes to Washington (D.C.), there’s a distance and lack of connectivity with what’s going on locally,” Orr said. “I think it behooves the city and county officials to possibly retain someone who will promote local interests.”
Orr said he thinks Decatur and Morgan County “are missing out on potential funding and grants” because they don’t have a federal lobbyist.
Orr said he believes the state would participate financially in helping with a third bridge “if the federal contribution was significant.”
In 2014, the state proposed a bridge from near Ingalls Harbor on the south side of the river to Alabama 20 in Limestone County that would have been funded in part by making Alabama 20 a toll road. The project fizzled in January 2015, however, in the face of local opposition.
Dewayne Hellums, Decatur-area Metro Planning Organization director, said the city could use part of the state’s study from the toll bridge for a third bridge but much of that study is likely to be outdated.
Councilman Carlton McMasters said hiring a lobbyist “is necessary,” especially since cities like Huntsville employ lobbyists to push for support on their behalf.
“We don’t have the money that’s needed to build the bridge,” McMasters said. “And we’ve got to spend $3 million to $5 million on pre-engineering and environmental studies before we ever go up to D.C.”
McMasters pointed out that the bridge would help more than just Decatur, so he’s hoping Huntsville's lobbyist would join with Decatur’s lobbyist in promoting the bridge.
Bowling and Hellums said work needs to begin now on a new bridge because projects like this take years to come to fruition.
Hellums said Hudson Memorial Bridge is 10 years from its projected life span while traffic continues to build. He said 53,000 vehicles daily cross the bridge “and it’s very congested at certain times of the day.”
He said much of the traffic is generated by Nucor and other industries along the river.
“Sometimes I just go out and watch the traffic along Alabama 20 (south of the river), and it’s amazing to see the number of 18-wheelers that are going east,” Hellums said. “They are all trying to go to or get from I-65.”
Bowling said he believes traffic jams are only going to get worse as north Alabama continues to grow.