It is midsummer and weekend traffic jams at the Wallace Tunnel and on the bayway are at their height. Hours-long delays on Friday evenings going east and Sunday afternoons going west are commonplace. Calls for a new bridge grow louder daily but there are problems with building the bridge.
Even if there is no negative environmental impact, and how likely is that, a new bridge would take years to complete and a vast amount of money. Six to 10 years and $1 billion are numbers being tossed around for such a project with the impoverished state of Alabama to pay 20 percent and the debt-burdened federal government the rest. Neither has the money to do this, especially the state.
We constantly hear demands for a smaller national government and its drastic debt reduction. Taxes are too high we are told and must not be raised, but while we are at it, let’s build a bridge and widen the bayway! Where is the logic in that? There is none.
Do we expect the nation to forget the massive Tenn-Tom boondoggle and give us another billion dollars? How can we? We can’t, period. We need to find other ways of dealing with the problem, and we need to put it in a national context.
Anyone who has been caught in rush hour traffic in most, if not all, American cities knows there are massive traffic jams almost every day that drivers must endure. Not just on summer weekends. Also our national roads and bridges are in bad shape and many desperately need massive repairs. Bridges are collapsing and roads are carrying more traffic than they were designed for.
The point is that Mobile and this region are in far better shape than most in the nation. We cannot avoid traffic jams by building more and more roads and bridges.
Over and over such efforts have failed as more and more vehicles use the new roads and bridges. After a few years the traffic jams return. When the Wallace Tunnel and bayway were built 40 years ago they eliminated traffic jams. Now, with people who work in Mobile choosing to live on the Eastern Shore and the rapid growth of Gulf Shores and Orange beach, facilitated by the bayway, it is far busier than we could ever have imagined in 1974. Will a new bridge and expanded Bayway be any different?
Won’t we want I-10 widened across Baldwin County at least to State Highway 59 and onto the new interchange for the Foley Beach Express? If we don’t do that will the traffic jams on the bayway just move to the Eastern Shore?
Again, where will the money to do all this to come from? What do we do until all this construction, if it ever begins, is completed years into the future?
Some might respond, “Well we had better get started hadn’t we?” How often do we as a nation have to blunder ahead on something when we simply don’t know the consequences of our actions?
If we are not unique in outgrowing our roads and bridges, and if we don’t have the astronomical sums we are talking about to enlarge them, what do we do?
First, we need to understand that highway construction, or any large federal project, appeals to the contractors who want the work. They and the federal and state agencies who supervise such projects want them approved. There is major money involved in a project as large as building a new bridge and widening the bayway. Anything that slows approval of such a project needs to be swept aside! Does it really?
Also, what happens if a contractor goes broke in the middle of the job? Remember that happened in the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge’s construction, delaying completion for several years. Such delays and massive cost overruns are rather common in such projects. Just because contractors want jobs doesn’t mean that they can do them, or that we need them done. The bigger the project the greater the likelihood of delays and cost overruns. Can anyone say Gulfquest?
Is there any way we can practically address our bayway and Wallace Tunnel problem? There are several possibilities.
First, ban all large trucks from both tunnels and the bayway. Direct them to the I-165, Cochran Bridge and causeway route. Second, close the Water Street entrance to the tunnel that puts vehicles right into its western entrance. Put up concrete barriers at once to accomplish this. We have such barriers, why haven’t we used them long before now to accomplish this task? Third, invest in new “smart signs”, such as those in Pensacola on I-10 and I-110, warning of delays. Use them to direct traffic to the I-165 route. Put such signs on I-65 as well as on I-10. Also put them up on I-10 westbound well before the Daphne exit to U.S. Highways 90 and 98.
Encourage vehicles, especially those coming from or to the north on I-65 to use the I-165 route. Such signs do cost a lot of money but nothing like a new bridge and bayway on I-10. They can be put up in a matter of months not years. Use all the signs to encourage the cars on I-10 to use the Cochrane-Africatown route when I-10 is congested.
Also Mobile should encourage cars to go through the city, see its historic buildings, beautiful trees and wonderful restaurants using the Bankhead Tunnel and causeway. Fourth, extend the Foley Beach Express to I-65 so traffic from the north does not have to go through Mobile and I-10 to get to Pleasure Island or points east on I-10.
Of course this is not a cheap project, but the entire Beach Express could be a toll road to help defray the expense. Remember the Bankhead Tunnel charged a toll until the Wallace Tunnel was opened. Even at a quarter a vehicle it made money for the state for decades. A $5 to $7 toll to use the whole of the lengthened Beach Express would not be unreasonable considering the time saved and frustration avoided.
We must make better use of what we have crossing the bay. What we have is going to be all we will get for many years and frankly, considering other highway needs across the nation, probably all we really deserve.
The federal Highway Trust Fund is the source of money to take care of and expand our federal roads. Its revenues are currently well below its expenditures. Without the infusion of billions of dollars ($35 billion from 2008 to 2010) the trust fund would have gone bankrupt by now, and the subsidy grows each year. In 2014 it was $ 10.4 billion.
The fund is constantly under attack by conservative groups and by the Republican controlled House of Representatives. This is reality, so let’s find another way to deal with tunnel and bayway congestion and delays now. We can do this and we must!