There are so many times while driving to the Gulf that I can’t help thinking how lucky we are to live so close to such glorious beaches — beaches that are the envy of the rest of the country.
But Saturday wasn’t one of those days.
The girlfriend and I were headed to Orange Beach for the Alabama Press Association awards, but figured we’d be smart and wait until close to lunch before leaving. We knew the Blue Angels were packing Pensacola’s beaches and that, combined with the usual Saturday beachgoers, meant the morning was likely to be traffic jam city. But surely by noon all that congestion would be gone — right? Wrong.
We hit Broad Street around noon while making for the Bankhead Tunnel and immediately found bumper-to-bumper traffic. My map app declared trying to go on I-10 an even bigger waste of time. Besides, I am firmly of the opinion that taking The Bayway on the weekend is a sign of severe brain damage, especially if it has even drizzled within the past hour.
We bumped along stop and start until we made it into the Bankhead. Traffic magically seemed a bit better and our spirits lifted even though we had two carloads of people behind us fascinated by the concept of honking inside a tunnel. Don’t they have tunnels in Louisiana?
Once we hit the Causeway, traffic opened up considerably and we roared along at speeds that would have awed people from the horse-and-buggy days. The Bayway was pretty much a parking lot. It always makes me feel smart to look up and see the traffic jam I avoided. I guess that’s the Causeway/Bayway IQ test again.
Traffic was heavy and Beth and I talked about how much more frustrating it is to get to the Gulf now. Really it’s the part about getting out of Mobile that has become especially frustrating. We just have more traffic than our two tunnels can handle.
Lately I’ve had occasion to need to be somewhere in Spanish Fort or Fairhope by 5 or 6 on a Friday evening, and the last time I honestly considered just going over there after lunch and taking a five-hour nap in my car. It’s been a 90-minute trip to Fairhope. Once it took about two hours to get where I was going. I sometimes feel I’m having PTSD flashbacks from Washington, DC traffic.
In DC things were so bad it once took me two hours to get to a Copeland’s that was about three miles away. When I lived in New Orleans I wouldn’t have walked across the street to eat at Copelands, but somehow through the wonders of gridlock I’d just spent two hours driving to eat faux Cajun food. I seriously considered setting my car on fire and just walking home.
That was the thing about DC, on the weekends you actually felt trapped inside the city because it was literally a two-hour trek just to get outside the Beltway. By the time you made it that far whatever energy you might have had was gone and you just wanted to go home.
We’re not that bad yet, but it is truly time to build the I-10 bridge we’ve been talking about for years. A few estimates I’ve seen say building the bridge could take as long as eight years — 10 in government speak — which means at least another decade of traffic jams if we get started this week. And yes, it’s going to be expensive — upwards of $1 billion possibly — but it’s not getting any cheaper by waiting.
I don’t doubt some early delay on the project came from the fierce opposition mounted when a bridge was first proposed. People were worried it would harm our Southern charm, destroy historic buildings and rain soot down upon downtown Mobile. Several different routes had to be discussed over and over again, then rejected, then talked about again.
Eventually the commonness of traffic jams in and around the Wallace Tunnel in particular at least has led to an acceptance by most people that a bridge is needed. There are still some bridge Luddites out there — one of whom is running for mayor.
Upon throwing his hat in the ring for mayor, Sam Jones said he’s not sure whether he supports construction of an I-10 bridge over the Mobile River because he worries it would take people out of downtown. Huh??? So I guess his logic is traffic jams are a downtown attraction?
I can unequivocally say the traffic jam I experienced Saturday definitely made it harder for me to get into downtown Mobile and less happy to be there. Maybe this Friday afternoon Sam should stand on the sidewalk with a big cardboard sign that says I-10 Bridge on it with a huge X through it and see how many donations people toss at his feet as they inch by. I’d imagine any hand gestures directed his way would not be thumbs up.
Opposing the bridge at this point is really the domain of people who never actually drive anywhere. Maybe Sam only drives between his house and the water board these days, but he clearly doesn’t have much of an idea about how clogged things are getting. And it’s only going to get worse.
Walmart and Amazon both are building major distribution centers in the area. That’s just going to mean more trucks on the road, and there’s at least some likelihood those two centers could attract other distribution centers as they did in Savannah. But what would be a boon for the local economy isn’t going to make for an easier trip through the tunnels, or over the Cochran Bridge for that matter.
I’m sure this is at least the fifth or sixth column I’ve written over the past decade about the need for a bridge, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be much closer to becoming a reality. Perhaps we’re waiting for some kind of epic gridlock event.
In addition to helping to alleviate our traffic issues, the I-10 bridge could end up enhancing our skyline and becoming an attraction of its own. Hopefully it will be constructed with bike paths and walking paths that would give it multiple uses.
But even if it’s just a plain old gray bridge that just moves more trucks and cars across the river, we need it. Getting across the bay is already tough enough and, with a notable exception or two, I can’t imagine many of us want to feel trapped in our own city.