MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) — At the heart of Alabama’s plan to build a new bridge connecting Mobile and Baldwin counties is a little-emphasized, counterintuitive gamble – that the project actually will reduce the number of vehicles making the trip.

Without the $2.1 billion project, state officials project traffic will worsen year by year, growing by 2040 to an average of more than 173,018 vehicles a day using the Cochrane-Africatown USA Bridge and the two tunnels. That’s up 52 percent from 2017.

The new bridge, according to the projections, would not just relieve traffic through the Wallace Tunnel by redistributing the flow. State planners contend it actually would reduce traffic overall. Instead of those 173,000 vehicles using the current three crossings in 2040, the total would be less than 154,462 a day.

Mobile River traffic counts
mobile river bridge

Rendering of future I-10 bridge

That represents motorists each day skipping 18,556 trips if faced with a choice between paying a toll to use the new bridge or Wallace Tunnel, or enduring a more congested free route over the Causeway.

Allison Gregg, a spokeswoman for the project, says planners hope drivers are willing to fork over a toll – currently projected at $3 to $6 per crossing – to avoid traffic jams.  

“And so you have to ask, what’s the price point that people will pay to not sit in the traffic?” she said. “And that’s what we’re still working to find out.”

The Alabama Department of Transportation projects that traffic flow during peak commuting times on the Causeway actually will be worse by 2040 with the project than if it does not get built.

Currently during the peak morning period, traffic flow from Baldwin to Mobile along the Causeway earns a C grade on a scale from A to F, with A being the best. With increased traffic from natural growth, that grade is expected to be a D with the current infrastructure. With a bridge, though, traffic flow on the Causeway would be even worse – an E.

The picture is similar for the afternoon commute home, when ALDOT projects the traffic flow on the Causeway would be worse without a new bridge than with.

Plenty of research indicates that new roads and bridges built to alleviate traffic only draw more cars and trucks. Take the Katy Freeway in Houston. Workers finished a massive widening project in 2008. The highway now has 26 lanes in some parts. Yet, traffic congestion remains a problem.

Susan Handy, an environmental science professor at the University of California, Davis, said the reason expanded transportation capacity often fails to alleviate traffic jams is that when a road expands, drivers who previously avoided the route start using it. Economists call this “induced traffic effect.”

But Handy said there is less research on how increased capacity and new tolling work in conjunction.

“The tolls make it a somewhat different story,” she said. “And I think it depends on exactly how they’re setting those tolls relative to the change in travel time. So, if the tolls were significant enough, I could see a situation where the actual number of trips trying to cross the river would go down.”

But Handy added that the rates would have to be high, and she questioned whether the reduction would be as large as ALDOT anticipates.

“The numbers they’re showing sound like a pretty significant decrease, and it’s hard for me to see how with that new capacity that’s going in that even if the bridge is tolled, that that many trips would be deterred,” she said.

That could be bad news for commuters, who would confront a choice between a hefty toll – more than $2,600 a year if the toll is set at $6, even with a frequent-user discount – and ever-longer waits on the Causeway.

“That is a heavy piece of cash that you have to lay out there just to do this kind of stuff,” said Lou Campomenosi, president of the Common Sense Campaign.

The Tea Party group this week launched a radio ad campaign urging people to register their opposition to tolls during ALDOT’s public comment period that lasts through May 23. Notwithstanding the state’s hope that traffic backups at the Bankhead Tunnel and the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge will push people to the tolled bridge, Campomenosi argued many people will have no choice but to endure the jams.

“If you can’t afford a $12 round trip, then, you know – time may be money, but money is real money, and if it’s going out of your pocket at $12 a day? I’m sorry,” he said. “You may think twice about it. Or don’t eat lunch or breakfast. I don’t know.”

If Campomenosi is right, and ALDOT is wrong about the project reducing overall traffic, the result could be that the Causeway by 2040 is a daily traffic nightmare – as bad or worse than the Bayway is now.

All content © 2019, WALA; Mobile, AL. (A Meredith Corporation Station). All Rights Reserved.

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