By WILL WHATLEY, Alabama Daily News
Under a proposal from coastal leaders meant to revive plans for a new I-10 bridge in Mobile, 18-wheelers and other large trucks could pay a toll up to $15 toll for sole use of a new bridge while all other traffic could travel toll-free using the existing Wallace Tunnel and Mobile Bayway. However, not all involved are ready to jump on board.
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, Fairhope City Council President Jack Burrell, U.S. Rep. Jerry Carl, R-Mobile, and retired local transportation official Vince Calametti presented the idea of constructing a new bridge over the Mobile River specifically for 18-wheelers and other large trucks, and to restripe the Bayway to add an additional lane in both directions.
According to the group, this will remove big trucks from the Wallace Tunnel, where many traffic tie-ups begin, while adding an estimated 40% more travel capacity to the Bayway and ensuring the region does not lose a $125 million federal grant for infrastructure work.
“Protecting this $125 million federal grant is critically important,” Stimpson said in a written statement. “We must demonstrate to the federal government that there is local support for moving forward. Failure to do so would cause the federal government to possibly redirect these funds.”
The group most affected by the plans – truck drivers and truck driving companies – are not yet convinced. Alabama Trucking Association President and CEO Mark Colson said the industry has been at the table negotiating in good faith and hopes others will do the same.
“Throughout the I-10 bridge debate, the Alabama trucking community has been ready and willing to consider proposals that are fair and equitable,” Colson said in a statement. “We will carefully review this new concept being presented. At first glance, it certainly raises some important questions. As this process unfolds, it is our hope that all interested parties are willing to come to the table to offer reasonable solutions bearing in mind that throughout the pandemic, truckers have been working tirelessly to keep America moving. The sacrifices made by truckers kept the American economy rolling, and we are still working every day to drive the recovery.”
Still, plan representatives believe it will be beneficial.
“You may or may not know this, but this corridor has been recognized as one of the most congested corridors in the entire nation,” Burrell said. “Under this plan, traffic will flow more smoothly with fewer delays. People and goods will be able to move more quickly, efficiently and predictably through our area.”
Carl said the bridge and congestion issue is important to all of south Alabama.
“We have spent so much time and energy focusing on the port, on the businesses the port generates,” Carl said. “From a business standpoint, we’ve got to move forward, we’ve got to get it done.”
Under the concept, trucks over 46 feet in length would be restricted from using the Wallace Tunnel and would instead use a dedicated, truck-only bridge over the Mobile River. It is suggested that taking these trucks out of the Wallace Tunnel can decrease average passenger car delays by about 60 to 90 minutes during peak travel times.
The group of leaders says that construction of the truck bridge would also benefit the Africatown community because the signed hazardous cargo route would no longer pass through it. Instead, hazardous cargo on large trucks would be restricted to the new bridge.
Additionally, the Bayway would be restriped and converted from two to three lanes in both directions, thereby increasing traffic flow by an estimated 40%. Existing traffic routes would be protected from tolls and fees. Only 18-wheelers and similar large trucks traveling on the Truck Bridge would pay a fee that would be less than half the fee considered previously.
Next steps for the concept include studies and analysis by the Mobile and Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organizations, as well as time for public comment and public hearings.
The state plans to contribute $250 million if the concept is approved by the MPOs, which would be in addition to the $125 million federal grant secured by U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, and Alabama’s congressional delegation. The estimated total cost of the plan is $725 million.
Previously, state leaders proposed building a new bridge for all traffic and paying for it with a $6 toll. That plan fell apart because of local opposition in 2019. Local leaders earlier this year asked Gov. Kay Ivey to develop options for “a locally supported solution,” according to the press release from advocates.
Ivey said she was pleased to see the bridge plan moving forward.
“I applaud local leaders for coming forward with a concept that addresses the growing problem of traffic congestion, imposes no tolls on passenger cars or pickup trucks, keeps existing routes untolled and secures the $125 million federal grant for the area,” Ivey in a statement. “This truly sounds like a win-win idea. I encourage the public and other local leaders to study this concept and voice their opinions to the Mobile and Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organizations.”
Sen. Chris Elliott, who has feuded with Ivey’s office and the Department of Transportation over the bridge project, was similarly positive about the development.
“I appreciate being part of the conversation and this potential solution and am optimistic about this new plan,” said Elliott, R-Daphne. “Yes, there has been past disagreement with Montgomery on the scope and cost of this project but you can be on opposite side of things as long as you’re working for the good of your constituents. The previous plan was flawed. Montgomery’s eyes were bigger than the pocketbook and that’s why I ended up opposing the previous plan. However, I have always been in favor of and have worked very hard to bring new capacity to the I-10 corridor. This new plan is a reasonable approach which will not place an undue burden on the people of Baldwin County.”
In November, Commissioner Joe Davis, a member of the Eastern Shore MPO, said “I’m not opposed to a toll as long as the locals have a free option, and that was the crowning blow that killed the project with the eastern shore MPO about a year ago, was that everything was going to be tolled,” he said.