The Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (ESMPO) hosted a public hearing last night on the proposed Interstate 10 Truck Bridge, but few members of the public attended. Similar to a hearing last week on the opposite side of the bay, representatives of Africatown and the trucking industry were there to express their concerns, but they were joined by Baldwin County toll critics Kevin Spriggs and Lou Campemenosi.
The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) didn’t have anything new to report about the project, other than to remind the public a deadline to receive comments is approaching May 29. Currently the proposal calls for a three-phase project, with the first phase — a four-lane span over the Mobile River, new interchanges in Mobile and re-striping the Bayway to accommodate three lanes in each direction rather than two — paid for by a toll on trucks of “not more than $15.”
The first phase is estimated to cost $675 million. The federal government has offered a $125 million INFRA grant toward the project while the state has pledged $250 million. The other $300 million will be “paid back” through toll revenue.
In separate meetings scheduled June 2 and June 9, each MPO is expected to vote on whether to include the toll scheme and phased concept on long range planning documents. If so, ALDOT can proceed with final engineering studies and financing arrangements. If not, state or local leaders may be forced back to the drawing board.
Fairhope City Council Chairman Jack Burrell and Baldwin County Commission Chairman Joe Davis, both members of the ESMPO, remain unconvinced. Both expressed concerns that Phase 1 does not provide any improvements to I-10 on the Eastern Shore, namely the Bayway and Exit 35 at Daphne and Spanish Fort.
There are additional concerns about the life expectancy of the Bayway and that the pending vote to approve Phase 1 does not guarantee that subsequent phases will ever be completed.
“I propose that Phase 2 begin now, with design and environmental studies approved by appropriate federal and state agencies,” Davis said, noting the original $2.1 billion proposal raised the Bayway in concert with the two-span bridge construction, also alleviating pressure on Exit 35. “A new Bayway must be finished as a bridge is constructed.”
Burrell repeated his claim that the entire project can be built at once, if the state can secure a $1.75 billion low-interest loan from the federal government.
“It’s a big ‘if,’” he said. “In the discussions I’ve had, the common theme has been we need the full scope of the project but we don’t have a way to pay for the full scope of the project. We need the entire scope done sooner rather than later. Even if we don’t need the capacity now, by the time [Phase 1] is finished, we’re going to need the additional capacity.”
Burrell said 20 years amortization on a $1.725 billion loan would equal a toll of about $1.64 per vehicle based on current traffic projections. Additional fees would likely raise the toll a dollar more, but Burrell said studies suggest most through traffic would support a low toll.
The votes next week will include draft amendments calling on ALDOT to study whether car drivers could voluntarily use the truck bridge with a fee of no more than $2.
“We don’t think a $2.25 or $2.50 toll is going to dissuade the average I-10 traveler from taking it,” Burrell said, emphasizing that existing free routes would remain free.
Public comments on the proposal will be accepted until 5 p.m. May 26 and may be submitted online. The Mobile MPO Policy Board will vote on the amendment June 2 at 10 a.m. at 110 Beauregard Street in Mobile. The Eastern Shore MPO will vote on the amendment June 9 at 10 a.m. at Daphne City Hall.
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