Officials are still unsure of the total price of a proposed bridge project across the Mobile River that would help ease congestion along Interstate 10 at the bottleneck of the Wallace Tunnel, but they’re eyeing at least one surefire way to pay for it. As the project — which is expected to cost more than the Alabama Department of Transportation’s annual budget — nears reality, talk of paying for at least a portion of it through tolls is gaining traction.
In a briefing for reporters Monday morning at the Arthur Outlaw Convention Center downtown, officials with ALDOT discussed tolling as a way to fund a portion of the project. Tolling was being considered because roughly 60 percent of the drivers who cross the river are from out of state.
“We hope to get some form of [funding] from the federal government and ALDOT,” Transportation Director John Cooper said. “It would be nice to have those replaced with additional funding. We think tolls could be a portion of that … ”
ALDOT is studying electronic tolls, according to a presentation to the media, meaning traffic would not stop, but license plates would be captured by cameras and drivers would pay by mail or via an online system.
While the price of tolls has not yet been determined, ALDOT Division Engineer Vince Calametti said the Wallace and Bankhead tunnels would remain open for local traffic, but did not say whether they would remain toll-free.
The cost of the project itself is still up in the air. Cooper said he’s heard estimates anywhere from $800 million to $1.8 billion for the bridge and widening project. Final estimates would hinge greatly on the response ALDOT compiles from an industry forum held the same day, in which roughly 400 contractors, designers and financiers learned more about the project.
“I’m interested to see what these people believe it’ll take to get it done,” he said.
The level of funding will also determine how much of the project will get completed, Cooper said. He told reporters that a bridge has to be built and it has to be connected to the bayway.
“We’d like to raise [the bayway] … and we’d like to expand it to Spanish Fort,” he said. “It’s not necessary, but if we have the option to do it we will.”
The goal, according to ALDOT officials, is to add two lanes to each side of the bayway and raise it above 100-year storm surge impacts.
ALDOT has a rough timeline in place for the project. Following the forum, officials will issue a request for qualifications. From there they will choose three teams. The teams will be made up of contractors, designers and financiers, ALDOT Mobile River Bridge Project Director Matt Ericksen said. ALDOT hopes to have chosen the three teams by the end of the year.
From there, they will work with the teams on a request for proposals, in which elements of the bridge design will be presented. ALDOT officials will then choose a winning team, with an eye toward signing a final contract by the end of 2018, Cooper said.
A construction period of about four to four and a half years would be begin in the spring of 2019, Cooper said.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson said completion of the long-awaited bridge over the Mobile River is much needed, as the city’s “gridlock stifles the economy,” affects residents’ quality of life and puts a damper on activities downtown.
“Within a year from now we’ll see a lot of good progress,” Stimpson told reporters.
The importance of the project was not lost on Calametti, either. During the presentation, he said the Wallace Tunnel is designed for roughly 36,000 vehicles a day but now sees an average of 75,000 vehicles per day. During peak times that increases to 100,000 vehicles per day.
Ericksen said completion of the bridge should save local commuters as much as 15 minutes compared to traveling through the Wallace Tunnel today.
State Sen. Bill Hightower (R-Mobile), a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2018, told reporters the completion of the bridge is not only important for Mobile, but for the region as well, from Texas to Florida. On the financing side, he said it might take some creativity. Baldwin County Commission Chairman Chris Elliott, a State Senate candidate, said all the options are on the table in terms of funding the project, which will have a huge impact on locals.