Long-stalled Mobile Bay bridge project gets green light

Published: Jul. 27, 2022 at 10:13 AM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - A proposed $2.7 billion Mobile Bay bridge and Bayway project is back on track.

Three years after intense public opposition killed an earlier and cheaper version of the proposal, the Mobile Metropolitan Planning Organization voted without opposition Wednesday to endorse the new iteration. The Eastern Shore MPO did same Wednesday, paving the way for construction to start as early as next year.

“Just another step in what’s been a long journey,” said Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, the chairman of the Mobile MPO.

Fairhope City Councilman Jack Burrell, who chairs the Eastern Shore MPO, hailed the vote.

“Today’s vote was a landmark moment for Baldwin County,” he said in a prepared statement. “The Eastern Shore has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decades, and our infrastructure has not kept pace. Today’s vote paves the way for providing the traffic relief we need in a way that makes sense for Baldwin County drivers.”

In 2019, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and Transportation Director John Cooper pushed a $2.1 billion plan that would have relied on tolls as high as $6 per trip for passenger cars to finance a six-lane bridge over Mobile Bay and the construction of a new Bayway.

A public revolt led the MPOs on both sides of the bay voted to remove the project from their Transportation Improvement Programs, making the project ineligible for federal funds. Ivey later made it official, announcing the state was moving on.

But traffic congestion has not gotten any better, and local leaders fashioned a new proposal they hoped would be more palatable. Judging from public comments submitted to the MPOs, the strategy at least partially has succeeded.

The design specifications remain the same – a 215-foot bridge carrying three lanes of traffic in either direction over the Mobile River and connected to a six-lane Bayway rising higher than the existing structure to accommodate federal concerns over vulnerability to storm surge during hurricanes.

Hurdles remain, but Wednesday’s vote puts a project that’s been talked about for roughly a quarter-century closer than it’s ever been to the finish line. There are public funding commitments and a set route. By putting the project back in the Transportation Improvement Programs, “the project’s eligibility for federal funding remains intact,” Alabama Department of Transportation spokesman Tony Harris told FOX10 News.

At the Mobile meeting, the outgoing transportation planning director of the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission, told MPO members that their vote was crucial to kickstart the project.

“This is the important step,” said Kevin Harrison, whose last day on the job was Wednesday. “This is the step that counts that gets the project into the TIP. … The project is now shovel-ready. And I think that’s the most important part.”

The bridge and Bayway still would be tolled, but at lower rates – $2.50 per crossing for cars that have transponders and $5.50 per trip for cars without them. Officials estimate the cost of a transponder will be $5 to $15. In addition, people opting to pay $40 a month would have unlimited access to the bridge and Bayway – significantly less than the $90 frequent user rate under the 2019 plan.

Unlike the 2019 plan, which also would have imposed tolls to use the Wallace Tunnel, the current plan commits to keeping that and the Bankhead tunnels free, along with the Causeway. Drivers traveling west on the Causeway would be able to merge onto Interstate 10 without interference from Bayway traffic, which would be diverted onto the bridge about a mile and a half before reaching the tunnel.

Wednesday’s meeting was a stark contrast to one in 2019, when members of the public jammed into the conference room at the GM&O Center on Water Street and spoke against the proposal. On Wednesday, no one from the public attended or spoke against it.

Stimpson said he believes the public considers the rates in the current plan more reasonable.

“The other thing that I think resonated with those who travel back and forth was when they declared that the Wallace Tunnel would be one of the free routes, I’m pretty sure that that got a lot of attention and changed some minds, also,” he told reporters after the vote.

Funding for the project breaks down like this:

  • $1.13 billion in federal funding.
  • $125 million from a grant under the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program.
  • $250 million in state funding.
  • $1.2 billion in other funding, most or all of which will be roll revenue.

In addition, state officials have sought an additional $500 million so-called Mega Grant offered to large, hard-to-fund transportation projects. Harris said the state would continue to apply for federal grants to chip away at the debt, which could take 30 to 40 years to pay off.

Few doubt the need for the bridge. According to state transportation data, the Wallace Tunnel was built for an average traffic volume of 35,000 vehicles per day. That daily average now sits at about 80,000, with vehicles exceeding 100,000 on peak days, according to the state transportation data. The department projects a daily average of 104,000 by 2045, which would see traffic on a typical day comparable to the busiest days currently.

Harris said officials hope to start construction late next year. It would take five years to complete. At that point, the current Bayway would be torn down.

State officials have promised to eliminate tolls once debt from the project has been paid off.

People filling their tanks in Mobile on Wednesday said that they support the bridge – whether they plan to use it or not.

“I’m not gonna use it much, anyway, so whatever they want,” said Mobile resident Tommy Babb. “But they do need the bridge. ‚,, It’s fine. We need the bridge – period. So, ever how they can get it done, they need to do it.”

Added Shirl Bowers: “Anything to cut down on this traffic. This is crazy.”

Fairhope resident Christopher Payne said he travels across Mobile Bay at least two or three times a week. He said he’s willing to swallow the toll.

“I think it’s a good idea,” he told FOX10 News. “The toll is gonna suck, but hopefully, it’ll speed the process up.”

Updated at 11:49 a.m. with comments from Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Commission Chairman Jack Burrell. Updated at 12:16 p.m. with additional comments from Mayor Sandy Stimpson. Updated at 12:32 p.m. with more reaction.


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