Toll road project greeted with skepticism

Published 8:46 pm Wednesday, September 21, 2011

By Tim Reeves
Special to The Standard

A York, Penn., group announced plans Tuesday to construct a combination railway and toll road, connecting port operations in South Alabama to the Tennessee state line — but the vast project is not without skeptics.
In the process, the group hopes the $7 billion project will spur economic development growth and create thousands of new jobs throughout Alabama’s western corridor.
In its announcement, Ameri-Metro said it had “finalized an agreement with Alabama Toll Facilities Inc. to construct a 300-mile rail and road transportation complex from the vicinity of Orange Beach to the Tennessee state line.”
“This is a once in a lifetime project,” said Shah Mathias, CEO of Ameri-Metro. “This is our first project in Alabama and this is the first project of this scope in the South.”
Although full details of the project are still months from being finalized, Mathias said he was confident an aggressive timeline the company has put in place can be met and that work on the project could start in the fall of 2012.
“I would think it is possible for us to have the route finalized in the next few months and be able to announce that,” Mathias said. “I also feel confident in saying the route will likely include Selma.”
What the company was calling an “unprecedented project” will include a four-lane limited access toll road from Orange Beach to Loretto, Tenn. The railway and road system, the company said, would create 14,000 construction jobs.
Where the road is built would be of the most interest to people who live in the Black Belt, an area that has sought out infrastructure development of this kind for years.
Mathias, a real estate developer, said the availability of land through the region made it an easy decision to move forward with the project.
“We think there will be a tremendous impact on the economic development of the area with this project,” Mathias said, adding that when completed, and once the other portions of the project are added to the toll road and railway, as many as 120,000 jobs could be gained in the region.
Other components of the project would include an inland port facility in central Alabama, “consisting of a 4,000-acre site and 19 million square feet of storage space,” and the “nation’s largest freight and passenger airport” including four 18,000-foot runways to accommodate both Boeing Dream Liners and A380 Airbuses. At present, the release said, “no other airport in the nation provides such an extensive runway system.”
Mathias said construction of the inland port could begin in 2014.
The announcement, which came in a mid-morning press release Tuesday, caught economic leaders throughout the state off guard.
Officials with the Selma-Dallas County Economic Development Alliance had not heard of the project or Selma’s possible inclusion in the route. And, according to media outlets Tuesday, officials with state economic and transportation offices had no advance knowledge of the project being announced.
But, Mathias said his company and the Alabama Toll Facilities had worked with state agencies over the years, laying the groundwork for this project.
During an interview Tuesday, Mathias said he had met with Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey and former head of the Alabama Department of Transportation Joe McInnis.
Ivey’s office Tuesday confirmed that Mathias and Ivey had met, but when Ivey was serving as Alabama State Treasurer and that the meeting was in passing and “could have been as many as six or seven years ago.”
Margaret Bentley, co-chair of the Black Belt Commission, which Ameri-Metro mentioned was one of the organizations it was working with to finalize the route, said Mathias had never made an official presentation to the commission.
“Mr. Mathias informally addressed some members of the Black Belt Commission several years ago about the prospect of building this toll road from south Alabama to north Alabama, which might benefit some counties in the Black Belt,” Bentley said.
Even with some apparent confusion as to some of the details of the project, economic and state leaders were still hopeful Tuesday’s news could become reality.
“I hope it’s for real,” Wayne Vardaman, director of the Selma-Dallas County Economic Development Alliance. “If it is, it would be one heck of a project.”
Even Ivey released a statement Tuesday praising the potential for this Sype of private investment in Alabama.
As for funding, Mathias said the entire project — including the railway, road systems and the inland port — would be entirely funded by private financing.
“All of the financing for this exciting project is being underwritten via stock and revenue bond offering,” Mathias said in the release. “No tax dollars will be required for this unprecedented project. The purpose of this project is to make money, not take money. And, we can’t wait to get started.”
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