Questions arise on massive toll road idea

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - A Pennsylvania high speed rail and infrastructure company says it is ready to start a massive project that would have major economic implications for Alabama's Black Belt and Gulf Coast.

The company, Ameri Metro, based out of York, PA released a press statement Tuesday announcing its intentions to soon break ground on a five year endeavor to build a four-lane limited access toll-road spanning from western Tennessee all the way down to Orange Beach.

"The project is huge but it's something that's doable" said Ameri Metro's CEO Shah Mathias. "The country needs it. The state needs it. People need to work."

Mathias said one of the key aspects of the project is that it won't cost Alabama taxpayers any money. "We wouldn't want to burden the state at all with this" Mathias said when reached by telephone Wednesday.

The toll road is only one of four parts of this enormous undertaking. The project also includes the construction of a freight airport on a site yet between Montgomery and Birmingham that has yet to be determined, an industrial park, and a high speed rail station self-proclaimed as the "Grand Central Station of the South," referring to the New York train terminal.

"The most important thing to us is that we are here," Mathias said. "We are here and we are moving forward with this project."

But lawmakers, state officials, and even the governor's office are completely in the dark about the project that Mathias claimed was initially approved by a resolution in the state legislature in 2007.

"Presently as I stand here I don't believe it," said Sen. Del Marsh (R – Anniston), the top leader in the Alabama Senate. "I mean I haven't heard anything on this project before."

A resolution is not legally binding. It is merely certifying intent to do something or recognize someone or something. Marsh said the project sounds so large and far-fetched that he can't take it seriously.

Marsh said, "I thought it was an April fool's joke when someone emailed it to me."

The Alabama Department of Transportation, ALDOT, also has no knowledge of any part of the infrastructure and transportation idea.

"ALDOT officials were not made aware by Ameri-Metro or Alabama Toll Facilities Inc. that they were announcing their plans" the agency released in a statement.

Mathias claimed he had been in contact with then-State Treasurer Kay Ivey in 2007 when he proposed to project to a handful of state lawmakers.

A spokesperson with now Lt. Governor Ivey's office said she has met Mathias before but to say they had any sort of agreement or negotiations would be inaccurate.

But Mathias with Ameri Metro says the project is not a joke. He contends the project is in its infant stages and will be complete within five years.

"It's not that far out," Mathias argues.

He said the company intends to pay for the project with the more than $15 billion worth of bonds the company has sold over the past few years.

"It is very real . . . These things don't happen overnight but somewhere along the line, it has to start. And what we're doing is, we started it."

Mathias said during the interview that the company has not yet started the process of acquiring land, permits, environmental surveys, FAA certifications, or addressing the issue of how the toll road would intersect with county and state roads.

Mathias contends all of that will happen over time and that the project will be completed on time.

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