Photo | Daniel Anderson
As spring breakers seek the white sand and bright sun of Baldwin County beaches, they often face crowded roads and traffic jams. During the busiest weekends, the roughly 30-mile commute between Interstate 10 and the Gulf Coast can take an hour. Once drivers cross the Intracoastal Canal, they can sit through traffic lights for several cycles.
It’s emblematic of the growth of Baldwin County, which continues to lead the state. Officials are worried the infrastructure may not be in place to handle all the planned homes, residents, businesses and schools, let alone those already established.
Mix in the annual growth in the tide of tourists hitting the beaches during the spring break and summer seasons and traffic really stacks up.
But several road projects are turning dirt, in planning stages or on a wish list to help county and state officials move the increasing volume of traffic countywide.
Topping the list is an Interstate 10 bridge over the Mobile River to bypass the bottleneck of the Wallace Tunnel. It would include widening and improvements to the Bayway as well. The roadway handles large volumes of vacationers coming to and from Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas as well as a large volume of commercial traffic involved in interstate business.
The Alabama Department of Transportation has a separate office handling the bridge and Mobile River and Bayway project and has prioritized its construction. Planning and design have begun but ALDOT officials are still looking for sources of funding for the $1.5 billion to $2 billion project. In February ALDOT released its shortlist of three teams vying to win the project.
Another wish-list topper for Baldwin County leaders is extending the Baldwin Beach Express from I-10 the 24 or so miles northward to connect with Interstate 65 to help move beach traffic off of State Route 59. Again, funding is the biggest worry.
But a major hurdle was overcome two weeks ago, when the first round of RESTORE Act projects were announced, allotting more than $11 million to start land acquisition for the new road. Of the $315 million coming to Mobile and Baldwin counties, more than $70 million is earmarked for roadway capacity improvements.
One of the most intriguing — and a project that is already planned, designed and funded — is a diverging diamond interchange coming to the intersection of 1-10 and State Route 181 in Daphne. It is an intricate design that will foster continuous flow between the two roadways, eliminating many unsafe left-hand turns.
The Alabama Department of Transportation spent more than $21 million on road projects in Baldwin County in 2016-17, according to records provided by the state. On the books for this year are county road improvements totaling approximately $70 million.
I-10 Mobile Bay Bridge
This is the big one and the one state officials hope to see completed within five years.
“It’s a big endeavor and we’re really excited about it coming to reality,” Allison Gregg of ALDOT said. “Our goal is a five-year construction schedule, but a lot of that is really going to be driven by the final project team that gets selected.”
Even though funding the $1.5 billion to $2 billion bridge and Bayway improvements isn’t entirely secured, Gregg — the public information officer for the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway Project — said the process began in fall 2017 by inviting potential contractors to discuss how they can help with the project. ALDOT announced in February the list had narrowed to three teams through a process that began in August.
“Back in late August we had an industry forum here in Mobile where we had about 400 industry people from all around the globe, really, to learn about the project and have individual meetings with the project teams,” Gregg said. “It provided the industry with the technical side of the project to help them as they move into the phase we are in now where we are requesting qualifications from teams. We had financiers, construction and all kinds of service providers looking to find out if they can serve the project.”
Those teams presented bids on how they would accomplish the final product of a new span across the bay and the Causeway improvements.
“We asked these teams to basically list their qualifications for us,” Gregg said. “From that list of people who apply, we will then send out a list of preferred teams. We imagine that will be three or four teams.”
Making the cut were:
I-10 Mobility Partners:
• Equity members: Cintra and Meridiam
• Lead engineering firm: Parsons
• Lead contractor: Ferrovial Agroman and Parsons
• Lead operations and maintenance: Cintra and Meridiam
Gulf Coast Connectors:
• Equity members: ACS, Macquarie, Hochtief and John Laing
• Lead engineering firm: T.Y. LIN International
• Lead contractor: Dragados, Lane Construction and Flatiron
• Lead operations and maintenance: Gulf Coast Connectors
Mobile River Bridge Group:
• Equity members: InfraRed Capital Partners, Shikun & Binui, Astaldi and Southland Holdings
• Lead engineering firm: Figg Bridge Engineers
• Lead contractor: Joint Venture of Astaldi, Johnson Bros. and Shikun & Binui
• Lead operations and maintenance: InfraRed Capital Partners (InfraRed Infrastructure V), Astaldi and Southland Holdings
Now, Gregg said, the state is hoping to find ways to pay for the bridge, one being an Infrastructure for Rebuilding America Grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“We are in the process of looking at a public-private partnership,” she said. “That’s what this process right now will tell us, if there are private funds for a public project. We’re also applying for an INFRA grant — it comes from the [Federal Highway Administration]. It’s pretty common for projects of this size to apply for grants. This is the seed money that helps the projects.”
Gregg said the estimated cost has risen as the project was expanded to include an improved Causeway.
“We are now looking at including the Bayway, the new viaduct for the Bayway,” she said. “Right now, it’s just got two lanes in each direction, moving that and making it an eight-lane with parallel bridges. It would be higher than the current bridge and would go in the middle of the existing Bayway.”
Public hearings with residents on both sides of the bay will also be a part of the project. On Feb. 27 ALDOT presented bicycle and pedestrian requirements of the project to members of local Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committees.
“As we create our outreach plan, [we’re] making sure that Spanish Fort, Daphne and Fairhope are just as engaged because everybody’s going to be driving across it,” Gregg said. “A lot of businesses and residents are going to be impacted by construction, but also be really benefited by the project.”
In fall 2017 the team overseeing the bridge project was housed in two offices, but Gregg is happy they are now combined under one roof, “in downtown Mobile, actually overlooking the project from the Trustmark Building.”
Baldwin Beach Express
Still in the early funding stages is the 24-mile extension of the Baldwin Beach Express from 1-10 to I-65.
“We’d love to do it and we’re ready to go, but funding is the biggest issue right now,” County Engineer Joey Nunnally said. “We’re looking at a bunch of different options on how to fund that. All options are on the table at the time as far as getting funding for it. Different grant options, tolls, P3 or public-private partnerships — basically, where public money and private money come together to try to make things happen.”
The toll option was taken off the table in the 2016 general election. There was a statewide referendum on allowing local governments to establish toll commissions and build roads. Statewide, voters passed it but it failed to receive a majority in Baldwin County, meaning it failed.
“We’re just going to go back to the drawing board,” Nunnally said.
The county did get some good funding news on the project. It was awarded money from the RESTORE Act council to buy rights of way for building the road.
Commissioner Chris Elliott said funding the entire project would have exhausted all the RESTORE funds and that wasn’t an option, but getting acquisition money “puts us in a better position to be able to keep moving the project forward.”
Nunnally said the county is also exploring alternative routes with an eye on trimming costs.
“The original route was going up Brady Road and kind of sticking to that Brady Road alignment,” Nunnally said. “We’re actually looking at alternate routes now to see if an alternate route might be a little cheaper.”
Nunnally said there are several routes being considered with costs ranging from $60 million to $127 million depending on the route and number of lanes. He said two consultants are working on feasibility studies and their reports are expected in the coming months.
Other big projects the county highway department is working on include improving the Polecat Creek bridge on Baldwin County Road 9 and work on the Dyas Creek bridge on County Road 61.
“We’ve got funds to replace the bridge on Polecat Creek on County Road 9,” he said. “That’s about to start. We’ve got the funds approved to start on the design on two bridges up there. They are pretty much back-to-back and side-by-side.”
He said the Dyas Bridge work will include some diving to repair scour holes on the supports.
“We’re about to do our third roundabout, which will be with ATRIP funds,” Nunnally said. “We’re about to start on our final ERP, emergency relief project from the 2014 flood event.”
I-10 at State Route 181
Diverging diamond interchanges are common in other parts of the country but this will be a new traffic dynamic for Alabama.
“It is going to be a pretty interesting project,” ALDOT’s Brian Aaron said. “It is the first diverging diamond that the state of Alabama has ever done so it’s unique in that aspect. We have some animation videos to show the public how to navigate through one.” The animation can be viewed at tinyurl.com/ycqlomyd.
The goal is to eliminate dangerous left-hand turns, which are a problem at many intersections, particularly with the current configuration.
“In this design you actually eliminate every one of those left-turn movements,” Aaron said. “Essentially, you’re eliminating all the left-turn crashes that happen in those typical interchanges. For this particular project, of all the accidents we’ve had out there, 46 percent of them were those left-hand turn movements. With this project alone, you’re going to have a 46 percent decrease in accidents.”
Not only will safety increase, but the new interchange will also move traffic through faster, Aaron said.
“At the same time, it improves the efficiency of that interchange as a whole,” he said. “Basically, with the crossover design the way it is, all those left-turn movements that you would make at a standard interchange like that where you have to wait at the light to make that left. We did have a lot of those side-impact crashes, a lot of times with someone making that left, running that light or somebody misjudging what’s happening there.”
The total cost for the project is about $6 million, Aaron said, with about $600,000 going into design.
“We anticipate starting on that job in late spring of 2018 and we think it’ll be about nine months’ worth of construction,” he said. “We’re going to have some lane closures where we’re doing some widening. A lot of the work takes place outside of the existing roadway so a lot can be done without affecting traffic too much. We’re going to try to schedule those times for as much off-peak times as possible.”
Aaron said another project coming up soon is adding a third lane on U.S. Route 90 up to I-10 and widening State Route 181 in Daphne, a project estimated to cost $15 million.
“We’re working on continuing the 181 widening that’s left off just north of County Road 64 and take it to State Route 104,” he said.
Two of the larger projects scheduled to start this year include widening U.S. Route 31 from Spanish Fort to State Route 59 at an estimated cost of $23 million and the resurfacing of I-65 from Dyas Creek to the Escambia County line.
In 2017 in North Baldwin, ALDOT had a resurfacing project on State Route 225 from County Road 138 to State Route 59 from east of Bay Minette to Stockton costing $2.1 million, and resurfaced I-65 from State Route 225 to Dyas Creek at a cost of $6.9 million.
In Central Baldwin, projects undertaken in 2017 included resurfacing State Route 104 from the junction of U.S. Route 98 in Fairhope to the junction of State Route 59 in Robertsdale costing $1.5 million, and resurfacing I-10 from Wilcox Road to the Florida state line at a cost of $3.6 million.
Gulf Shores saw the resurfacing of State Route 59 to the Intracoastal Waterway bridge at a cost of more than $720,000. In Orange Beach, the second phase of the median project on State Route 182/Beach Road, began in 2017 and is ongoing and will cost about $2.8 million. State Route 161 in Orange Beach was also resurfaced from Canal Road to State Route 182 with a price tag of $616,000.
RESTORE Act projects
Besides the $11 million for land acquisition to extend the Baldwin Beach Express to I-65, there is another $56 million going to projects in the county.
According to Nunnally, those are two phases of widening State Route 181 from Baldwin County Road 32 to State Route 104, two phases of widening State Route 180 on sections in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, and the widening of U.S. Route 31 in the Spanish Fort area.