After years of delays, plans for a new project to replace the congested George Wallace Tunnel on Interstate 10 with a soaring new bridge may finally be underway.
Vince Calametti, Alabama Department of Transportation regional engineer, called the release of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement a “significant step” toward the construction of a bridge over the Mobile River.
While the estimated $850 million to build the bridge hasn’t been secured yet, ALDOT will move forward at this point by letting the public get involved, Calametti said.
Once the DEIS is advertised, residents will have a 45-day period to review it, which will be followed by two community meetings – one in Mobile and one in Baldwin County – before another 45-day comment period takes place, Calametti said.
Then, the next three to six months will be spent fine-tuning the document, he said.
“Soon after that, funding will be a priority,” Calametti said.
The project will also include a two-year design phase.
The project has been in the works since 2003, Calametti said, but in 2007 and 2008, another possible route for the bridge was added and its proposed height was raised from 190 feet to 215 feet. To put that in perspective, Calametti said the Cochran-Africatown Bridge is 140 feet.
The new route, which ALDOT refers to as “B Prime” and the added height are meant to better accommodate Mobile’s maritime industry, Calametti said. The statement noted that the maritime industry contributes $2.4 billion to the regional economy annually and supports up to 28,700 jobs.
The proposed route connects to I-10 at Virginia Street to just south of the cruise terminal and just north of the Austal buildings. The six-lane bridge will connect to the Bayway just east of the Government Street exit and two lanes in each direction will be added to the Bayway.
Calametti said one of the issues leading to the desire for the new bridge is that the current route for I-10 through the George Wallace Tunnel has reached its traffic design limit.
For instance, the traffic calculation within the DEIS showed that the daily traffic crossing the Mobile River is 111,334 vehicles. That average is expected increase to 182,445 vehicles by 2030, which the document states would create more congestion and longer delays.
Another benefit is the project would keep trucks hauling hazardous materials out of the downtown business district, Calametti said. Trucks hauling hazardous material now must take the Cochran-Africatown Bridge across the river and then continue on Water Street, through downtown, to I-10.
“In the Mobile area there is a need to increase the capacity of I-10 to meet existing and predicted future traffic volumes and to provide a direct route for vehicles transporting hazardous materials, while minimizing impacts to Mobile’s maritime industry,” the statement read.
The DEIS studied four alternate routes for the project, as well as a no build option. The report claims all the options are still in play. All but one of the options will result in a $6 million a year economic loss to the maritime industry, but the project will result in a net gain, as its expected to have an economic benefit of $537 million to $1.08 billion per year, the report states.
“The benefits from reduced congestion would produce approximately 64 percent of the benefits,” according to the report. “A ‘no build’ would not realize these potential economic benefits, but would avoid the losses to the maritime industry and construction costs.”
The preferred alternate route would require no residential relocations, but would require the relocation of 12 businesses, according to the report. One of those businesses, Southern Fish and Oyster, is owned by Ralph Atkins Jr., who believes there are other ways the state can reduce traffic on I-10.
For one, Atkins believes that the traffic problem would be somewhat alleviated if the state eliminated the entrance to eastbound I-10 on water street. He said there should also be a sign warning drivers of an eastbound lane that “disappears” and ties up traffic because of out-of-town drivers who don’t know the lanes change up ahead.
“Let them know because there are people who don’t know it ends,” he said.
He also said during times of heavy traffic it would help to put a sign up diverting larger trucks to I-65.
“If you do that you don’t even need (a bridge),” Atkins said. “There’s a simple solution, but I know they’ll build it eventually.”
Atkins said he was also curious who they would name the bridge after and thinks it’ll cost a bit more than the $850 million price tag.
The third-generation owner of Southern Fish and Oyster added that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen to his property, but said that he’d need $2 million to move into a new building and equip it to meet new city regulations, after 80 years in business at the foot of Eslava Street.
“It’s not in my plans to move,” he said. “I have managed this well and we’ve serviced people forever and ever.”