TALLADEGA COUNTY -- After a lengthy hearing before a crowd that filled the courtroom and spilled into the hallway, the Talladega County Commission voted unanimously to grant Tim James a license to build a toll bridge across the Coosa River and into Shelby County.
The bridge, which will connect U.S. 280 in Sylacauga to Interstate 65 in Calera, is still a long way from being a done deal, however. A similar license must be granted by Shelby County, and there are still numerous federal environmental permits to obtain, James said.
The project, which involves about 13 miles of road work in Talladega County and 20 in Shelby County, is estimated at $30 to $40 million, all of it privately funded.
Commissioner Greg Atkinson, whose district includes the bridge site, said he heard “valid concerns on each side. I have to weigh those and see who comes out with the best advantage. We want to do what’s right for all citizens.”
He added he had gotten numerous calls from constituents on both sides of the issue, but those favoring the bridge outnumbered the opposition six or seven to one.
“I’ve been in real estate for 33 years, and I understand the value of peace and quiet,” he said. “In my mind, this project is a positive. There are tradeoffs, but I feel the benefits outweigh the negatives.”
He added the project could also boost enrollment at Fayetteville School, which would in turn increase federal funding for the school.
Commissioner Mally Limbaugh also said he had received a great many calls regarding the project, with about 70 percent in favor. Commissioner Jackie Swinford said the messages he had gotten had been about 75 percent positive, although at least one person appears to have sent messages in both support and opposition to the project.
Commission Chairman Kelvin Cunningham said he had not received any direct calls or messages on the project (his district is at the other end of the county), but he said most of the written comments he had looked through Monday also favored the project.
Although there were a number of concerns on a variety of issues expressed by members of the public Monday evening, a slight majority in attendance also seemed to favor the project.
Two representatives of Coosa Riverkeepers spoke early in the hearing.
“I’m concerned about the lack of information,” Steven Dudley said. “I’d like to see a traffic study and a cost analysis …I believe this project will benefit the applicants more than the citizens.
“(Former) Gov. (Fob) James, Tim’s father, signed the law that made this kind of thing possible, and Tim James Sr. and Jr. get the benefit, as opposed to people who want to build homes and fish there.”
Dudley said the construction work and cement would increase the turbidity of the water and hurt the lake life. Lay Lake is also contaminated with PCBs, which have settled to the bottom but would be stirred up by the construction and “impact wildlife and diminish enjoyment of the water … It seems to be a no-brainer, but there is always a price to pay.”
Coosa Riverkeeper Executive Director Justinn Overton said she could remember being out on a johnboat at 8 years old and being told not to get into the water because it would make her sick. Her grandfather died of cancer associated with PCBs.
“The logistics sound appealing, but logistics are not data and science,” she said. “We should invest in the lake, not in its demise.”
In his comments at the end of the hearing, James left no doubt as to his feelings regarding the Riverkeepers.
“My only objection is to the environmental people,” he said. “They know full well we still have to get the state and federal permits, and there will be hearings for all of them, too … Their arguments are hogwash to the core, and they should be ashamed of themselves.”
There were other possible objections raised as well, including the complaint from longtime residents that they chose to live in the Fayetteville area because they did not care for the bigger city/high traffic lifestyle that might come with having a major traffic vein running next to their properties.
One resident said, “You tell me this will raise my property value, but that only benefits me if I want to sell it, and I don’t want to sell. All you are going to do is make my taxes higher.”
Another selling point was that people in southern Shelby County would have much better access to Coosa Valley Medical Center in Sylacauga in case of medical emergency, but some of the speakers Monday raised concerns about the higher number of accidents the project would inevitably bring and the lack of first responders available in the area.
WHO’S GETS THE $9.5M
One of the most frequently asked questions of the evening regarded the tax funds set aside by the county to fund a public version of the project James is planning to fund privately.
The public project has been on hold for more than a decade, largely because officials in Shelby County have not been interested. The fund holds about $9.5 million, which is nowhere near enough to complete the project.
The money is earmarked, however, and cannot be used for any other purpose.
Several people asked what the money would be used for now that it was not needed for the bridge project, but the commissioners said they could not answer that question.
The fund is controlled by the state Legislature, and the Legislature would have to specify what it wants the money used for in the future.
One resident complained he had been waiting for earmarked funds from a different project to be released for more than 25 years without seeing anything and expressed a lack of confidence that the $9.5 million would be released in the near future.
The motion to grant James the license request was made by Atkinson and seconded by Limbaugh.
Further coverage of the commission meeting will appear in a future edition of The Daily Home.