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  • ALDOT says new bridge and Bayway are "financially viable"

    The Mobile River Bridge and Bayway Project is financially viable thanks to $375 million in funding from the federal government and the State, according to a joint statement from the Eastern Shore and Mobile Metropolitan Planning o-rganizations on Monday.

    “ALDOT is moving forward with this project, utilizing funds from the $125 million federal INFRA grant as well as a commitment of at least $250 million in State funding,” the organization wrote in a memo to the MPOs. “ALDOT and the nationally recognized financial experts working on this project agree that this project is financially viable.”

    The memo attributed this confidence to “improvements in projected traffic and revenue numbers” and “recent changes in federal law and regulatory guidance” that could net the project higher TIFIA loan amounts.

    Though the project will proceed with its current funding, ALDOT is waiting to hear back on its Mega Grant and Bridge Investment Program grant applications, and will keep looking for more funding opportunities with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

    Eastern Shore MPO Chairman and Fairhope City Councilman Jack Burrell called the announcement “fantastic news.”

    “We are closer than ever before to the new bridge and Bayway that South Alabama desperately needs,” he said in a statement. “This news, combined with the good progress in selecting the teams that will design and build the project, should be music to the ears of the thousands of drivers who are tired of sitting on the Bayway or in the tunnels.”

    Mobile MPO Chairman Mayor Sandy Stimpson said the announcement sends “a clear signal that the State of Alabama is serious about building this bridge” and charts “a clear path toward solving the worst bottleneck on the I-10 corridor.”

    Design-build teams submitting their statements of qualification by Dec. 21 is the next step in the project’s initial phases.

    Passenger vehicles can expect tolls of up to $2.50 and trucks can expect tolls of up to $18 to cross the state-owned bridge until the debt is repaid.

    The Causeway, Wallace Tunnel, Bankhead Tunnel and Africatown Bridge will remain open as toll-free options, and drivers who commute between Mobile and Baldwin counties every day can pay $40 per month for an unlimited-use option.

    ALDOT estimates the project will be completed within five years.

    ALDOT says new bridge and Bayway are "financially viable" | News | lagniappemobile.com

  • Alabama schools slow to spend $3 billion in federal COVID relief

    Some Alabama’s K-12 schools are having a tough time spending more than $3 billion in federal COVID relief funding.

    It’s a lot of money - more than schools have ever seen in such a short period of time. Money, first sent to keep schools open in 2020, can now be spent through fall 2024 on students’ ongoing academic needs.

    Statewide, of the $3.28 billion reported on the Alabama State Department of Education online dashboard, $1.21 billion, or 37% has been spent according to the state’s online dashboard of COVID spending.

    Spending started at a snail’s pace in 2020 and early 2021 because of difficulty finding, purchasing and transporting the supplies and materials schools needed during the pandemic’s height.

    Now, the problem is finding enough people to staff planned positions.

    “The biggest problem is that where they’re really short, what most people want to spend the money on is personnel,” said state Superintendent Eric Mackey. “There are not enough people out there to hire.”

    “I never thought in my career we’d get to the point that we had more money than we have people. But we do,” he said.

    Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd, a nonpartisan think tank that has been tracking COVID relief funding, said on average, states have spent about 33% of the total relief they received.

    Jordan said some districts are struggling because they’re not sure how best to spend it before the Sept. 30, 2024, deadline districts face for obligating the last of three rounds of federal relief funding.

    The problem appears more acute for school districts with higher levels of poverty, who are spending their third round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Funding, called ESSER III, at a slower pace.

    “High poverty districts have more money to spend,” Jordan said, referring to how allocations were calculated, giving more money to districts with more children in poverty.

    She said she has heard concerns that schools aren’t spending the money fast enough, but that doesn’t take into account the multi-year effort schools are making.

    “A lot of the plans call for summer learning over three years, three years of tutoring,” Jordan said. “There are two more years to spend [the money].”

    So although it hasn’t been spent, it has been obligated to something, she said.

    Mobile County Schools public information director Rena Phillips told AL.com district officials are confident they are “right on track” spending COVID relief funding. To date, according to the state’s dashboard, Mobile County, the state’s largest school district with more than 50,000 students, has spent 31% of the $348 million facing 2023 and 2024 deadlines.

    Who is spending how much money?

    School officials were required to submit detailed written plans for how they planned to spend their ESSER III direct allocation and Alabama Education Lab covered what was in those plans.

    Districts have a lot of flexibility in how they can spend ESSER III money, as long as they use at least 20% of it to address learning loss.

    According to an online dashboard showing how much COVID relief funding has been spent, 18 of the state’s 138 non-charter school districts haven’t spent any of their ESSER III money. Of those 18 districts, 14 have student poverty levels higher than the median district poverty level.

    Jordan said districts that haven’t spent any of their ESSER III funding probably need some kind of technical assistance.

    “Somebody ought to be intervening,” she said, “because that is the kind of place where they’re not going to spend it all, and you’re going to end up wasting an opportunity.”

    Alabama schools slow to spend $3 billion in federal COVID relief - al.com

  • U.S. Altered Himars Rocket Launchers to Keep Ukraine From Firing Missiles Into Russia

    WASHINGTON—The U.S. secretly modified the advanced Himars rocket launchers it gave Ukraine so they can’t be used to fire long-range missiles into Russia, U.S. officials said, a precaution the Biden administration says is necessary to reduce the risk of a wider war with Moscow.

    The U.S. since June has supplied Ukrainian forces with 20 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launchers, or Himars, and a large inventory of satellite-guided rockets with a range of almost 50 miles. Those rockets, known as the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, or GMLRS, have been used to strike Russian ammunition depots, logistics supplies and command centers on Ukrainian territory.

    But the Himars launchers have a unique feature intended to prevent them from becoming even more potent battlefield systems. U.S. officials say the Pentagon has modified the launchers so they can’t fire long-range missiles, including the U.S.’s Army Tactical Missile System rockets, or ATACMS, which have a range of nearly 200 miles.

    The previously undisclosed modifications show the lengths the Biden administration has gone to balance its support for Ukraine’s forces against the risk of escalation with Moscow. They also reflect apprehensions among administration officials that their Ukrainian partner might stop keeping its promise not to strike Russian territory with U.S.-provided weapons.

    On Monday, explosions struck two Russian air bases, including one that is a staging area for long-range bombers.  The Russian Defense Ministry said that Ukraine had used drones to carry out the attacks, which damaged two aircraft and killed three Russian troops. There is no evidence that U.S.-provided weaponry was used in the strikes. 

    Kyiv didn’t formally claim responsibility for the attack, but Ukrainian officials hinted they had the capability to strike deep into Russia.  After the strikes, Russia launched missile attacks on Ukraine.

    The U.S. and its allies have sought to help Ukraine by bolstering its patchwork of air defenses. But the allied efforts have moved slowly. While Ukrainian officials claim that about 80% of the attacking missiles are shot down, the ones that have gotten through have disabled around 50% of Ukraine’s power grid, though Ukraine’s workers are trying to restore it. 

    U.S. Altered Himars Rocket Launchers to Keep Ukraine From Firing Missiles Into Russia - WSJ

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    Who deserves the blame for the GOP underperforming in midterm elections?

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