State Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, said she and other north Alabama legislators were touring the Port of Mobile by boat on Feb. 28. "I had never had an interest in the Port of Mobile," she said, …
State Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, said she and other north Alabama legislators were touring the Port of Mobile by boat on Feb. 28.
"I had never had an interest in the Port of Mobile," she said, adding she never thought it was relevant to Walker County.
"They took us out where the port enters the Gulf (of Mexico). I looked over and there were 1.2 million tons of coal on the ground. A ship was loading," she said.
Officials talked to her about the need to deepen and widen the port, and assured her that coal from Walker County was part of the coal being readied that day to load.
"I just had a moment where I felt a focus, just like in the lens of a camera, where I got it. I got the Port of Mobile improvement part of this," she said. Later, she also said a refrigerated ship full of frozen chickens, some of which were from Walker County.
"It's not just important to the steel industry or the car industry, and it is important to both of those industries. But it is important to folks at home," Rowe said. "I made a pretty firm commitment at that time."
Rowe said he learned the Port of Mobile is the third largest coal terminal and second largest steel port in the U.S. and the 11th largest full service seaport in the nation.
Noting she had also heard the road and bridge needs, and the safety concerns, but with the port issues she thinks "it is in the best interest of my district for that to happen, and it is not going to happen unless this bill passes." Rowe said the bill has been in the making for the past five years and has looked at various funding over time.
"This is just a very well crafted bill that brought together your county governments and your city governments, ALDOT (the Alabama Department of Transportation), and Gov. Ivey just intends for it to pass," Rowe said, saying she respects her and admires her knowledge of state government from so many levels and experiences. Once Ivey was locked in on the bill, she started taking interest, although she noted she is also friend with the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, and had long discussions with him about the transparency aspect that satisfied her. But it was her visit to the port where she "really started to believe in it."
"I feel really good about the accountability tied into it," she said. "I feel really good about where the dollars are going. I've enjoyed a lot of support from the business community and from state and local governments."
Besides the institutional endorsements, she met with poultry, timber and agriculture representatives who also supported it and said it had been needed for years.
Rowe said some people are not in favor of the tax increase, but said "some of those folks may not have the information" that legislators working in Montgomery for three to five years have seen, which she said would change one's perspective. She noted even with some strongly opposed to it, no one told her that "we have great roads and don't need any money" for them. She estimated she might have had 65 percent in support in talking to her, while the other 35 percent was opposed to a tax at all or had problems with an element of the bill.
"I've had some people tell me, 'You'll never going be re-elected again. I don't cast votes on whether I'm ever going to be re-elected again. I'm pretty committed to doing what I think is the best thing to do," she said. "I have people here who have faith in my judgement."
Rowe said it was hard to get people to the table to agree on one bill, and that all the stakeholders had to settle with what they could live with so some solution could be found, made harder by waiting so long since the last increase.
"We cannot let it go any further without somebody making some hard decisions," she said.
She said she would continue to monitor it closely for results such as jobs and road miles.
Rowe said an ATRIP-style program would likely result from the bill to fund projects of local interest that are part of the state system, funded at between $30 million and $50 million annually. "That ATRIP money will also be available," she said, noting the success seen from an earlier ATRIP program for road and bridge projects in the state.
Rowe said a number of amendments she terms as friendly to the bill were added.
"I know several amendments were passed," including hers that will make use of the U.S. Census' five-year census estimates for distributions between the 10-year formal census counts, starting in 2025 after the federal 2020 Census. That will help cities growing so they don't have to wait for the 2030, for example.
She voted for another amendment that passed, sponsored by state Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, to not require cement to be granite based but to switch it over to limestone as it is more available and cheaper. "It is actually recommended and preferred in many states," she said.
As for paving quality, she noted experts were brought in for presentations on international studies on the lifespan of different methods to pave. The experts "suggested what we are doing currently is fairly antiquated and that a hard look needed to be given to a better way to pave, with materials that have more longevity," she said. "That's in the mix as we move forward with this."
As for the amount of funds available for roads, she said, "This isn't as much as we would like to have to make a huge impact, but something is certainly better than nothing to try to move in that direction."
She said the rushed nature of the process over the past couple of weeks might have hurt public perception at times, and she said she would have liked for them to know details months ago, but it was only in the last few days that the bill was worked out and supporters lined up before the bill was introduced. "That wasn't to keep it from anybody. You just had to get a bill that had some potential for passage before you could lay it out for us to look at," she said, noting different versions were floated in the past and amendments were even introduced at the last minute.
While she said many will only think of the tax when they fill their tank, she hoped others would think about it when they also see road projects resulting from the tax, as well as jobs that could result. She believed the bill will help in advancing economic development in the state. "If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't have voted for it," she said.