MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – The Mobile River bridge project is back on track, but don’t expect construction to start right away.
The long-desired span to alleviate traffic on the congested Interstate 10 Bayway got new life when the Mobile Metropolitan Planning Organization and then the Eastern Shore MPO voted to put the project back in their Transportation Improvement Plans. The Eastern Shore MPO had yanked the project in 2019 over objections to proposed tolls. It could not come back without this week’s vote.
Now, state and local leaders are under the gun to nail down details by September 2022, the deadline to use or lose a $125 million federal grant.
“What we have now is at the very minimal, a way to move forward to get at least phase one built,” said Kevin Harrison, director of transportation for the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission.
Harrison said the next step – the big obstacle that’s confounded public officials for a quarter century – is figuring out how to pay for it all.
One possibility is more federal money. President Joe Biden wants to spend more than $1 trillion on infrastructure. The House and Senate also are working on different versions of a long-term transportation funding plan.
“The time is right, right now to go after some of these federal funds,” he said.
The original plan was a $2.1 billion project that would include a twin-span bridge and a new, wider and higher Bayway. But local leaders shelved the idea after residents revolted against a proposed toll on both the new crossing and the existing Wallace Tunnel.
The latest iteration involves breaking it into three phases. Local leaders hoe to be able to corral enough federal funds to do it all at once. But if not, the plan is to start with a single span of two lanes in each direction, starting at Virginia Street and connecting to the Bayway. The Bayway also would be restriped to allow an extra lane in each direction, which probably would mean the speed limit would have to be reduced.
Phases two and three – adding a second bridge span to allow for four lanes in each direction and a new, elevated Bayway with an equal number of lanes.
Harrison said the project could be in line for additional funding if it makes a list of the nation’s top 10 choke points. “Which it is,” he added.
A study in 2017 indicated that it barely ranked in the top 200, but Harrison said that and other studies rely on GPS data collected from trucks.
“But what happens why they go through the tunnel?” he said. “You lose your GPS signal. So, they’ve got bad data.”
Without more federal money, the funding sources break down like this: $125 million from the existing federal grant; $250 million from state funds and $300 million to be financed through a toll of $10 to $15 on the new bridge.
The current idea is that residents who don’t want to be that bill would be able to continue using the tunnel for free. But large commercial trucks would be barred from the tunnel. The trucking industry has objected, arguing it would be unconstitutional. Alabama Trucking Association President Mark Colson said the bridge is needed but that it has to be financed another way.
“The trucking industry under the truck-only toll is being asked to put up, basically, the same amount of money as the state and federal government combined,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would think that makes sense. But we need to find a solution.”
Colson said acknowledged that there are no easy solutions.
“Here’s the reality: Things cost money,” he said. “And so, there’s no money trees. Money doesn’t grow on trees. We all know that. But the federal government, the state government and stakeholders have responsibility to find a solution that will actually bring the project to fruition. A truck-only told do that.”