Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) Director John Cooper joined agency staff to explain and defend the new Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project, as opposition to tolling grows.
During a press briefing on Wednesday, July 17, ALDOT officials announced a possible tolling structure, including a $6 one-way charge for use of the entire allotment once it is built.
Mobile River Bridge Project Director Edwin Perry also introduced possible amounts for segmented tolls, which start at $2 and increase to $6, depending upon how much of the route a driver travels.
Perry also told media members that frequent users could pay $90 per month for unlimited crossings. If commuters use the bridge to go back and forth to work 20 days per month, Perry said, the toll price would average out to $2.25 per trip across.
Those commuters participating in the $90-per-month pass would have to purchase a transponder, which will be made available before construction is completed, he said.
According to Perry, ALDOT will also offer a 15-percent discount to frequent users — those who use the bridge more than four times per month, but don’t use it enough to warrant the pass.
The reduction would apply to Class 1 vehicles only, which includes cars, pickup trucks, minivans, sport utility vehicles and motorcycles. If a vehicle is towing a trailer, the discount wouldn’t apply.
In a one-on-one interview with Lagniappe, Cooper defended the tolling discount, saying many drivers will cross more than 40 times per month, knocking the average cost-per-crossing with the discount to about $1.70.
“That’s less than a gallon of gasoline,” Cooper said. “I would argue you could use more than a gallon of gas waiting in congestion.”
Delays during peak travel times, including morning and afternoon rush hour, were taken into consideration when designing the project, Perry said. Information provided by ALDOT shows those delays during peak times due to crashes were, on average, up to 75 minutes. In total there were 132 crashes during peak times last year, Perry said. Drivers stuck in congestion last year experienced 30-minute delays. There were 161 congestion-related delay events last year, Perry said. This means that drivers had a 33-percent chance of being delayed due to congestion and a roughly 25-percent chance of being delayed by a crash.
Cooper argued it’s time for people to assess how much their time and safety is worth.
“Would you like to be able to leave home 20 minutes later?” Cooper asked. “Would you like a safer crossing 40 to 50 times per month without trucks all around you? I don’t know how to value these things. People will value it differently.”
It’s no secret the public-private partnership means the project team selected expects to make a profit from the bridge. However, the amount of expected profit is still up in the air, Cooper said. The profit question will be answered when proper bids are returned, he said. That’s when the project groups will be asked about an expected return on investment.
“They will give us a bid on what they can invest and what they will require us to invest,” Cooper said.
This is the first so-called “P3 project” — public-private partnership — in the state for roadways, Cooper said. ALDOT researched similar toll-based projects in Florida and Texas in designing this one, he said.
ALDOT has previously stated the tolls would be part of a 50-year concessionaire contract, though, and those tolls can escalate.
As for the state funding, without the private sector help or without tolls, Cooper said the bridge would not be possible. Even the state’s ability to float a bond and pay it back with a lesser toll is out of the question.
“We are not prepared to assume that much risk on a single project in the state,” he said. “There are a lot of different projects statewide.”
Perry confirmed tolling would not start until the project was near completion, which is expected to be 2025.
The agency expects the vehicles-per-day average to increase by 20,000 in 20 years along the current routes across the bay. This means that without the bridge, ALDOT is projecting all routes to be experiencing the same level of congestion seen during peak summertime travel year round.
This scenario would be much worse than any figures related to toll avoidance, Cooper said.
“We believe a significant portion of people will use the new bridge,” he said. “People will see the toll as a value.”
ALDOT has applied and been rejected twice for federal INFRA grants, Perry said. The agency asked first for $500 million in funding for the project worth roughly $2 billion. The agency then asked for $250 million and was rejected. But on Monday, it was announced the state would be awarded $150 million for the project. While the grant award is worth millions of dollars, it would only cover about 6 percent of the projected cost of the massive bridge and Bayway project.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne joined in with other lawmakers from Alabama in pushing for the project’s inclusion in the grant program in a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao earlier this year. On Monday, Byrne released a statement praising the decision.
“This is outstanding news for the people of Southwest Alabama! Fighting for federal funding for this bridge has been one of my top priorities in Congress, and I am glad the Trump administration has come through with this grant award,” Byrne said. “I am very appreciative of the help from our entire Alabama congressional delegation, especially Senator Richard Shelby.”
At the press conference, Perry said if the project was awarded federal grants, any tolls associated with it could be reduced, as the public portion of funding would be increased. However, a toll would still be placed on the project, he said.
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