CALERA, Ala. — Gov. Robert Bentley announced the last round of projects for his history-making road and bridge construction program Wednesday and capped off a nearly $1 billion construction effort that will be in full swing during next year's re-election campaign.
Standing near an outdated bridge over Interstate 65 in Calera, Bentley said the last round of projects in the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program will total $372 million for 45 counties. That brings the total program to $990 million.
When Bentley first proposed the program in January 2011 in Birmingham, he talked about $2 billion, but later scaled that back by half. He said $1 billion is enough to borrow at this point, but he left open the possibility of what might happen in the future.
"We are going to stop at $1 billion right now. We'll see what the needs are down the road," he said.
Bentley and others cite the program as a highlight of the Republican governor's administration.
"It's the most aggressive transportation program that we've ever had in the history of Alabama," said Republican Rep. Mac McCutcheon of Capshaw, who serves on a state committee that reviews which projects get approved.
When the Alabama Forestry Association endorsed Bentley for re-election July 18, executive vice president Chris Isaacson said Bentley's road program was the largest since Gov. James E. "Big Jim" Folsom's farm-to-market road program more than 50 years ago and was a key to the endorsement. "That's a legacy the governor will leave, and rural Alabama will be better for it," Isaacson said.
Many of the ATRIP projects will be either be under construction or wrapping up while Bentley is campaigning for a second term in 2014.
After the Calera announcement Wednesday, he flew to Autauga County to cut the ribbon on the first project completed under the program — the widening, leveling and repaving of County Road 1 in the Jones community.
The road construction program is financed by the state selling bonds that will be paid off with federal highway funds the state will receive in the future. Bentley said the bonds, known as Grant Acquisition Revenue Vehicle bonds or GARVEE bonds, cost the state about 2.6 percent interest. With interest rates low and construction costs rising, it's cheaper to build the roads and bridges now than to defer them until later, he said.
In most cases, cities or counties are putting up 20 percent of the revenue for a project and the state 80 percent. In 21 counties that are short of matching money, the state is providing $1 million each in matching money. The amounts received per county ranges from $6.6 million for several small counties that needed help matching the state money to $82.7 million for Madison County, $50.2 million for Mobile County, $46.8 million for Tuscaloosa County, $46.1 million for Jefferson County, and $40.2 million for Shelby County.
Most of the projects involve widening or resurfacing a road or improving an interchange. Most are under $1 million.
In Calera, the $10 million project involves widening a two-lane bridge on U.S. 31 that crosses Interstate 65 in a rapidly growing part of Shelby County.
Businessman Clayton Burton said he opened Burton Campers at the I-65 exit in 1984 when his recreational vehicle business and a service station were the only things near the exit. Now there are motels, restaurants and lots of retail, including a Wal-Mart. Traffic often backs up on the narrow bridge.
"I've sat through three red lights before crossing the bridge," Burton said.
Bentley said projects like the one in Calera are crucial for economic development and jobs. "It's hard to recruit jobs into an area when the roads and bridges can't handle the traffic," he said.