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Friday, May 14, 2010

Byrne, James battle over toll bridge



Bradley Byrne is slamming fellow Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim James as an insider who benefited from his father's service as governor, which his opponent alleges enabled him and partners to build a toll bridge to the beach.
Byrne, one of seven Republicans running for governor, is talking about the work on the Foley Beach Express, a toll road that connects Foley with Orange Beach allowing people to skip much of the traffic.
James has talked about the expressway as one of his successes as a businessman and has said no public money went to the building of the project.
"Bradley Byrne continues to be wrong on the facts. This is what I've come to expect from a desperate campaign," James said in a statement on Friday.
Byrne questioned if James would have been able to accomplish one of his biggest achievements without help from the state while his dad was governor.
James was a partner in the Baldwin County Bridge Company L.L.C., which built the Beach Express.
Brett Hall, a spokesman for James, said Byrne is confusing two different roads. He said there is the toll road and bridge built by James and his partners, and a bypass.
The toll road received no government funding.
Foley received about $7 million from the federal government for the bypass, which connects Alabama 59 to the expressway.
Byrne said the connector makes the toll bridge viable.
"You would have gone through a lot of lights and wouldn't save any time," he said.
In May of 1996, then-Gov. Fob James signed legislation approved by state lawmakers that allowed city and county governments in the state to build toll roads and bridges.
Tim James and Tim McInnis, according to records with the secretary of state's office, incorporated the Baldwin County Bridge Company L.L.C., in July 1996 to "build/maintain/operate toll bridge."
Tim James' campaign pointed to an article in the Mobile Press-Register in April 1996 outlining other toll roads that were planned before James sought a license to build the expressway.
Fob James lost the 1998 general election to Democrat Don Siegelman and left office on Jan. 18, 1999.
Just days before leaving office, the state signed a contract with the city of Foley for construction of a connector to the expressway. The agreement, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Transportation, led to the construction of a corridor from County Road 20 to Alabama 59, according to the construction agreement.
Fob James signed the agreement on Jan 6, 1999.
"There is nothing wrong with building a bridge in Orange Beach. Orange Beach needed a bridge," said Byrne, who lives in Baldwin County, which he represented in the state Senate.
The problem, he said, is Tim James had no experience building bridges.
Hall said James was already in the infrastructure business and that his partner, John McInnis, has built bridges throughout the nation.
Foley, which is home to an outlet mall that is a popular stop on the way to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, can become congested.
The toll road was expected to help people traveling to the beach save 15 to 45 minutes, and help with evacuations during hurricanes, according to a 2000 article on tollroadsnews.com.
McInnis Corp. of Mobile, who partnered with Tim James and his brother on the project, is a "long-established bridge contractor," according to the toll road news.
Hall said the genesis for the bypass started before the Foley Beach Express and that the city of Foley had received grant money for the project from the federal government. He said the state was a conduit for the money.
"That was a totally separate deal and didn't have anything to do with the Baldwin County bridge," Hall said. "He's mixing it all up as if it were one."
He said Fob James' signature was "basically a rubber stamp."
Hall said James and his partners did not have to go through the state for most of its permits. "They didn't have to get state permits other than curb cuts and stop lights," he said.
Hall said issues related to the bridge were vetted when James ran for governor in 2002.
"His father did great things to avoid any appearance of impropriety on anything," he said.
Hall said James has regularly talked about the expressway when discussing his qualifications as a businessman "because of the impact it had on Baldwin County both on economic development and the impact on public safety. It is an evacuation route. The county needed it and did not have the funds for it and he came up with a solution. It is a win-win for the county and landowners and all of the people of Baldwin County."
James and his partners sold the bridge to a foreign company. Byrne said James is using those profits to help fund his campaign for governor.
Byrne criticized James outside the studio of WMRK-107.9 FM, where he was on air on a conservative talk radio show for two hours on Friday. He said James did not want to come on Friday to talk about the expressway even though he has talked extensively about the project and his success as a businessman.
James issued a challenge to Byrne on April 22 to participate in a series of debates.
"It's time to bring all of the attacks and allegations out in the open. Let's take this beyond dueling press releases and talk show chatter. I call upon Bradley Byrne to debate me, face-to-face, in a public forum," he said in a release at the time.
The men appeared together last week on the Leland Live program in the Birmingham market.
"Basically our polling numbers show (Byrne) is falling and he's in third place and going down. It just wasn't wise or feasible at this time to go on the show," Hall said. "We had a debate on Leland Live and we were there for two hours. ... It was a thorough conversation between the two of them. They debated the issues. That was as good as it gets."
James' original challenge stemmed from the first public dispute between the two men following an April 20 article in the Montgomery Advertiser, which pointed out that ads attacking Byrne were funded by a political action committee that received money from PACs that received hundreds of thousands of dollars directly and indirectly from the Alabama Education Association's PAC.
Byrne has had to dedicate much of his advertising to defending ads attacking him as a liberal trial lawyer who supported Democrats.
Byrne's campaign alleged, because some of the money went through PACs operated by a consultant who was hired by James to help raise funds, that his campaign was involved in the attack.
James said his campaign did not conspire directly or indirectly with AEA to run the ads against Byrne. In later ads, he alleged Byrne was desperate.
Hall said Byrne had dropped to third place in their polling.
An independent poll released this week indicated Byrne with a narrow lead over James. Byrne said Friday that he leads a very tight race between the two candidates with others in contention including former Chief Justice Roy Moore and state Rep. Robert Bentley of Tuscaloosa.
Other Republican candidates include Bill Johnson of Prattville, James Potts of Bibb County and Charles Taylor of Daphne.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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South Union Street is the blog of Montgomery Advertiser political reporters Markeshia Ricks and Sebastian Kitchen. Always check here for the latest on the Legislature, elections and other activities and players in Alabama.

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