MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – The Mobile River bridge and Bayway project lives – for now.
The Mobile Metropolitan Planning Organization, which has a strong say in local transportation projects, decided Wednesday to delay a vote on the plan to build a new bridge and expanded Bayway.
The group, made up of elected and appointed officials in Mobile County, approved the Transportation Improvement Program that lays out federally funded transportation projects through the year 2023 – but removed the bridge and Bayway project.
The MPO will take up that project again at a meeting in October after the Alabama Toll Road, Bridge, and Tunnel Authority meets to discuss the project.
Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl, a member of the MPO board, had called for removing the bridge project and voting it down. But he said after the vote that he is satisfied with the delay to give Gov. Kay Ivey and her team more time to come up with an alternative to the current plan that includes tolls.
Removing the project from the TIP list permanently effectively would have killed it, according to Alabama Department of Transportation officials.
“In order for a project to be authorized for federal funding, it has to be in this document,” said Kevin Harrison, the MPO’s director of transportation planning.
ALDOT’s current plan is to construct a new six-lane bridge rising 215 feet above the Mobile River and a new Bayway that would be eight lanes and significantly more elevated than the current structure.
With little direct federal money available, state officials consistently have maintained that tolls are the only way for the state to finance the project. ALDOT has proposed imposing tolls on Bayway, regardless of whether drivers use the new bridge or the existing Wallace Tunnel.
The proposed maximum rate is $6 for a one-way trip, and lesser amounts for drivers who use only a portion of the 10-mile route. Discounts would be available for people who buy transponder devices for their cars and make more than four one-way trips in a month. But drivers who do not have transponders would have to pay a 50 percent surcharge on top of the toll and would get bills in the mail from pictures taken of their license plates.
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who chairs the MPO, acknowledged during the meeting that people do not want tolls. But he urged fellow board members to keep the project alive.
“In discussions with the governor’s office, the No. 1 thing she needs from us – that is the MPO – is more time to determine what the real options are,” he said.
Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson, who is not on the MPO board, urged the panel not to jeopardize federal funding for a project she said only will grow in importance over time.
“We need the bridge,” she said. “We’re looking at gridlock on the weekends now. Within 20 years, we’ll have gridlock every single day.”
The vote was unanimous, but several members of the MPO board expressed frustration.
“This has been set up as a binary decision of you’re either for the toll or you’re against the bridge,” said Saraland Mayor Howard Rubenstein.
He added, “There’s a little bit of a disconnect right now between us and the governor’s office,” he said.
Satsuma Mayor Tom Williams called charging tolls “morally wrong.”
Carl, who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives, told reporters on Tuesday that he wanted to force ALDOT to go back to the drawing board, scale back the $2.1 billion project and come up with a less-expensive plan that could be financed without tolls.
Carl reiterated that position on Wednesday.
“We have got to come up with a better plan, and quickly,” he said.
The tolling plan has sparked fierce opposition in Mobile and Baldwin counties, and arguably an unprecedented amount of civic engagement. An anti-toll Facebook group founded by state Auditor Jim Zeigler has more than 50,000 followers, and organizers who held a meeting at the Five Rivers Delta Center on the Causeway had to turn away dozens of people who could not fit into the theater where the gathering took place.
Zeigler attended Wednesday’s MPO meeting along with a group of supporters who wore anti-toll hats.
Click on the link below to determine how much the tolls would cost you.