Photo | Lagniappe

Crews were busy demolishing buildings in the footprint of the proposed Interstate 10 Mobile River bridge project last week. Soon, archaeologists will conduct a historical study of the area before construction officially begins late next year. 

With more than a year left before construction starts, the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) has begun demolition work for the proposed Mobile River bridge and Bayway project.

The agency is currently in the process of tearing down nine buildings throughout the project site just south of downtown near Virginia Street, where the bridge will be footed.

“Because the final design is in a preliminary phase, we don’t have exact locations on where the footings are going to be … ,” ALDOT spokeswoman Allison Gregg said.

Some of the buildings were vacant before ALDOT acquired them, other owners and tenants were asked to move. Gregg said the acquisition process can be “quite lengthy,” but owners were offered fair market value for their property.

Attorney Jason Darley moved his offices out of one of those buildings in April. He has since relocated to North Lawrence Street.

Darley recalled the process began about six to eight months before he actually moved. He said “right-of-way specialists” came and offered a timeline for the project. It was “fairly accurate,” Darley said.

“I was pretty happy with the process, but I’m not an owner,” he said. “I talked with people who planned the project and they told me it was a ‘when’ not an ‘if.’ I was surprised when they said it was really happening.”

He said he misses the old building.

“There is some sentimental value in it, of course,” Darley said. “It was a beautiful building and I enjoyed being there.”

Following the demolition of each building, a team of archeologists examine the sites to look for any historically significant deposits. It’s a crucial step before ALDOT can continue the project, Gregg said.

“There’s already been a lot of archeological work,” Gregg said. “They’re removing the buildings so they can … take a look at what’s underneath. This is part of all federally funded projects you have to do.”

Philip Carr, Ph.D., director of the Center for Archeological Studies at the University of South Alabama, said the team has already recovered artifacts from prehistoric and colonial settlements from the site, as well as some from the 1800s and beyond.

Some of the so-called deposits are still intact and more intense excavation work is set to begin in March. Carr said the work of archeologists will not interrupt the project, as they are to keep a tight schedule.

“We’ll be finished by the time construction starts,” Carr said. “We have enough people power to make sure we stick to the schedule that’s already there. We’ve been given 12 to 18 months.”

Carr said they’ve already found prehistoric Native American shell mounds, pottery and animal bones. From the 19th century, they’ve found household items and ceramics, he said.

Construction is still set to begin in 2020, Gregg said, with ALDOT contemplating hiring one of three development teams. The chosen team will be responsible for design and construction of the new bridge as well as a wider and taller span to replace the existing Bayway, she said.

Proposals from the design teams are due in June.

While those design teams will be required to sink private money into a portion of the project, Gregg said, the plan is to reimburse them through tolling. As it stands, tolls will be placed on the new bridge, bayway and the Wallace Tunnel. The tolls will be segmented, Gregg said, meaning drivers will only pay a toll equal to the portion they travel.

In addition to private money, the bridge will also be funded through federal grants and other public money.

Gregg reiterated the importance of the project for the future of transportation on the Gulf Coast.

“We’ve got to get this started now because our traffic projections show that if we don’t do anything within 20 years, the traffic like we see on the Fourth of July will be like that every day,” she said.

The timetable for construction is about five years, Gregg said. ALDOT is looking at a 2025 completion date. When completed, the bridge should be one of the highest suspension bridges in the country. In fact, it should only be about six feet shorter than the Golden Gate Bridge.