An Alabama judge has ordered construction to halt on a $120-million taxpayer-funded bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway in Orange Beach, citing a “personal vendetta” by Alabama Dept. of Transportation (ALDOT) Director John Cooper against a toll bridge company.
Montgomery County Circuit Judge Jimmy Pool issued the preliminary injunction in May, siding with Baldwin County Bridge Co. (BCBC), which operates the Beach Express Bridge one mile from the under-construction bridge.
“The Court finds that Director Cooper, in directing ALDOT to proceed with the Cooper Bridge, acted in bad faith for the purpose of putting a private company out of business, and that he concealed that true purpose from the public,” Pool wrote in an order granting BCBC’s motion for a preliminary injunction.
Tony Harris, a spokesman for ALDOT, tells ENR, “The Alabama Supreme Court has decided it wants to review the facts and full record before making a decision about the preliminary injunction. While we are disappointed the Court has left the halt to construction in place for now, we are optimistic that the final ruling on our appeal will be in favor of building the new, free bridge.”
Harris says the $51.85-million bridge project is a low-bid project awarded late last year to Scott Bridge Co. of Opelika, Ala.
BCBC filed the lawsuit against Cooper in Montgomery County Circuit Court Oct. 20, 2022. At the time, ALDOT said the new bridge would alleviate congestion and provide another safe hurricane evacuation route for residents.
BCBC operates the Foley Beach Express and the Beach Express Bridge, a privately owned toll bridge that offers an alternate route to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, according to its website, which says “due to the small fee we charge and fewer managed intersections on the approach, traffic usually is lighter and moves faster than state Highway 59.”
Pool’s order issues a temporary injunction against further work on the bridge project, Harris says, and at the time when work stopped, the contractor had made progress on the approach from the north and preliminary work for bridge support pilings.
ALDOT has appealed that ruling to the Alabama Supreme Court “and the Supreme Court, in a one-page ruling, allowed the temporary injunction to remain in place until the full appeal is heard later this year,” he says.
In the order, Pool says the evidence shows Cooper “acted in bad faith towards BCBC in connection with his decision to build a new bridge (the 'Cooper Bridge') along the Intracoastal Waterway just one mile away from BCBC’s Beach Express Bridge (the BEX Bridge).”
Cooper tried to purchase the BEX bridge in 2015 and operate it as a free public bridge as a solution to traffic management. BCBC’s then-owner declined Cooper’s offer to buy the bridge and, Pool wrote, “Director Cooper’s initial response was to hold public funding hostage in an effort to force BCBC to reconsider selling its bridge.”
“After Director Cooper unsuccessfully tried to purchase the BEX Bridge and unsuccessfully tried to force BCBC to hand over the bridge for free, he embarked on a haphazard scheme to put BCBC out of business by building a free bridge just one mile to the west,” Pool wrote in the order following the preliminary injunction hearing.
That hearing, Pool says, “overwhelmingly established that Director Cooper’s intent in building the Cooper Bridge is to put BCBC out of business and to eliminate the toll on the BEX Bridge.”
“Director Cooper’s scheme is set to cost the taxpayers of Alabama more than $120 million in state funds,” Pool wrote, saying that money could be used on other infrastructure projects in the state. “The price tag on putting BCBC out of business keeps going up, as Director Cooper caused ALDOT to take on millions more in costs relating to his project while this preliminary injunction hearing was pending.”
Cooper’s real motivation, Pool says, is that “he thinks the company makes too much money on the toll bridge,” and that in directing ALDOT to proceed with work on the bridge, “acted in bad faith for the purpose of putting a private company out of business, and that he concealed that true purpose from the public.”
He says Cooper “acknowledged that his specific intent in building the Cooper Bridge is to ‘undo’" the bridge company’s contractual rights and license for the bridge, and to "’put the BEX facility out of business,’” as he doesn’t think the company is entitled to operate.
Cooper ordered his staff to build the bridge without conducting a single public meeting or traffic study demonstrating its need, the order says, resulting in ALDOT not following normal procedures.
Pool also wrote that Cooper negotiated in bad faith when apparently working out plans with BCBC for the company to construct a new two-lane bridge alongside the existing toll bridge at no cost to the state as well as expand toll plazas, give $70 million to local infrastructure projects and more, negotiations he says Cooper never had plans to complete.
Cooper’s denial of that plan “is a telltale sign of Director Cooper’s bad faith and shows that his new bridge is not about alleviating traffic congestion,” the order says.
In a motion to dismiss the suit, Cooper says that a BCBC representative admitted that Cooper didn’t engage in fraudulent conduct when making decisions about what they dub the “New Bridge,” and that BCBC “practically begged ALDOT to delay the New Bridge project in late 2021” to continue negotiations, which Cooper then granted.
“No accord could be reached,” the motion says. “That’s not ‘fraud’ or ‘corruption,’ though, it’s business.”