ALDOT Director John Cooper speaks to Chamber

Alabama Department of Transportation Director John Cooper talks with Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce Chairman Hope Johnson prior to a Chamber membership luncheon at Clarion Inn on Thursday.

Alabama’s Department of Transportation director said Thursday that funding challenges placed the next phase of Ross Clark Circle improvements “somewhere between a promise and a plan.”

Although public meetings have already been held to view proposed designs and although plans for the project are about 60 percent complete, ALDOT Director John Cooper stopped short of saying the next phase – which entails the addition of lanes from Highway 231 North to Bauman Drive – is a done deal.

“We are planning to do the next phase of Ross Clark Circle in 2016,” Cooper said Thursday during a speech at the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce Membership Luncheon. “Some things still have to happen.”

Cooper declined to go into detail about what must happen in order to move the project forward, but local officials have said the project is contingent on moving funds that had been purposed for I-10 Connector studies to the circle project. Cooper said he is confident the project will happen.

“If I had to bet, I would bet that it will occur,” Cooper said.

Cost of construction is between $30 million and $40 million, but Cooper said additional costs must be considered including the purchase of right of way, moving of utilities and other costs that could total $10 million.

Cooper said he expects the project to be bid some time near the middle of 2016.

Cooper spent most of his address chronicling what he perceives as a lack of funding for the department. The department is funded primarily by a gasoline tax which has not changed since 1993. Considering improved fuel efficiency in vehicles, Cooper said the average Alabama resident is paying roughly the same for road improvements as he or she did 21 years ago, while the cost of road improvements have escalated by a factor of about 2.5.

“What we have learned is that transportation finance, transportation funding, does not work,” Cooper said.

Cooper said current funding levels cost the state in at least five areas.

« Severe urban congestion

« Failure to build development roads

Cooper said 17 of Alabama’s 67 counties do not have any four-lane roads that eventually connect to interstates.

“It is absolutely impossible for those counties to develop economically,” Cooper said.

« Overcrowded 2-lane roads

Cooper said Alabama currently has 20 2-lane roads that have a daily traffic count of more than 15,000 vehicles per day.

“Because of that, you’re not likely to have any development along those corridors,” Cooper said.

« Lack of promises kept on projects that appeared to be in the pipeline but postponed or dropped due to lack of funding

« Allocating money for projects that attract economic development

“It has frozen us in our tracks and stopped us from aspiring to big things,” Cooper said.

Alabama received about $480 million in state funds for roads and bridges in 2013, plus an additional $733 million from the federal government. Cooper said one needed urban congestion project would cost $110 million alone. After allocating money for resurfacing existing roads, maintaining the interstate system, conducting emergency maintenance due to weather/other issues, bridge replacement and money specifically allocated to cities and communities, the department has about $150 million left for what is referred to as “system enhancement” or capacity needs.

Cooper did not advocate a gasoline tax increase, but said an additional $300 million to $500 million in revenue would help. That would translate to an increase in the gasoline tax of about 15 cents per gallon, a political non-starter.

“That would allow us to plan the projects we now need to do,” Cooper said.

Cooper touched on the controversial widening project in Eufaula. Construction is currently underway to address a bottleneck issue in the city and should be completed by April 1. The project faced considerable opposition among Eufaula residents.

“One of the difficulties we face is balancing priorities and the needs of different groups,” Cooper said. “I fully understand some people will never see our point of view.”

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