City officials are constantly seeking an edge when it comes to business recruitment, tourism and quality of life. Sometimes those solutions come in the form of new or improved transportation alternatives.
Mobile and Baldwin counties are no different. In the neverending search for a municipal leg up, locals are aware of plans to build a new bridge across the Mobile River on Interstate 10, bring Amtrak back to this part of the Gulf Coast and, most recently, move the commercial airport to the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley.
Officials seem poised to move forward on at least two of those projects. The state has a timeline in place for the river bridge and the Mobile Airport Authority (MAA) has released details from a feasibility study based on the airport move.
MAA Executive Director Chris Curry pretty much summed it up when he told a room full of reporters there are “no guarantees” when it comes to the airport business. Nonetheless, it appears as though the organization wants to move forward with a plan to bring commercial passenger service to the Brookley Aeroplex.
Those plans began with a news conference to announce the results of a feasibility study focused on the airport move. Curry and others hope a move could lead to more competition that would, in turn, lower fares for customers and possibly add new destinations. Specifically, the airport authority is looking to attract low-cost carriers similar to Via Airlines, which just began service to Orlando from Mobile and plans to be among the first commercial carriers at Brookley.
“There are several low-cost carriers that have expressed interest in Brookley providing commercial service,” Curry said. “These airlines would not consider Mobile as a location if they were operating out of the regional airport. The only way to drive the cost of fares down in our community is to create competition, increase destinations and provide better access.”
However, when asked about the possibility of attracting more low-cost airlines to the downtown airport, Curry gave a less-than-confident response.
“You never know until you sign the contract, but I can tell you in our conversations, that’s [MAA Director of Market and Air Service] Brian [Belcher] and I, in our efforts to attract new air service, when you mention the idea of Brookley to low-cost carriers they become very excited,” Curry said.
The reasons low-cost carriers are excited about Brookley are less than clear. An official with Via has stated publicly that traffic along Airport Boulevard was a determining factor, but Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson hinted that competition from larger legacy carriers might also be a reason.
“There have been [low-cost carriers] who’ve come to Mobile in the last 20 years and what has happened is Delta has basically run them off,” Stimpson said. “People are so locked in on Delta that they didn’t want to travel on low-cost air. We’ve been very unsuccessful in changing the dynamic of our legacy carriers.”
Increased competition and the possibility for more direct flights is important for Stimpson, who is concerned about decreased ridership at Mobile Regional Airport when compared to Pensacola International Airport.
As late as 1990, Mobile and Pensacola had close to the same number of enplanements. Mobile had 396,393, while Pensacola had 433,766. From then on, Pensacola’s enplanements have, for the most part, increased and Mobile’s have decreased. In 2016, Pensacola had 788,517, while Mobile had 283,309.
Stimpson said with years of decline, something has to change. That’s why he supports a possible move to Brookley.
“You look at the dynamics of what could make the airport grow when we’ve been on a decline for decades, to me it has a lot to do with location,” he said. “To continue to do things like we’re doing, you’re going to have the same result. If you’re going to do something incrementally different, it’s only going to make an incremental difference.”
It does seem like Stimpson and other officials are hopeful an airport move can impact ridership in a positive way. However, with the vast majority of the funds needed for improvements to Brookley coming from the Federal Aviation Administration, the city doesn’t expect to foot much of the bill. While the costs associated with a new terminal have not been announced, Stimpson said he’s sure the city’s burden would not be much. He mentioned other so-called white elephants, such as GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico.
“The city itself won’t be putting a lot of dollars in it, like a GulfQuest, where we’re going to build it and we hope they come and if they don’t we’ve got this huge debt,” he said. “At the end of the day, the city might have to end up investing some dollars, but I just don’t see it being a frog strangler, where you just can’t — you’re drowning.”
Curry agreed, adding that 90 percent of the money needed for the project would come from federal funds.
“I’m not sure the city or county would need to be involved financially,” he said.
MAA is in the process of renovating an existing building on the Aeroplex site to be used as a low-cost terminal, Curry said. An airport master plan would be the next step and would outline development at Brookley for the next two decades, he said.
“This will take into consideration our existing facilities,” Curry said. “There’s a forecast and airport layout plan that’s approved by the FAA and it would look at the environmental impacts of improving Brookley to a commercial standard.”
Move feasibility study
The Mobile Metropolitan Airport System Study was completed earlier this month by VHB and focused on a number of factors, including whether it was more cost effective to move the airport than to simply create better access to Mobile Regional Airport.
“Not only would it be more cost effective, given the development that has occured over the years, it would be extremely difficult and time consuming to acquire the land necessary to provide improved access from Interstate 10 or Interstate 65,” Curry said.
The study also analyzed the geographic area from where the MAA can “reasonably” expect air service passengers to come from. This is known as a “catchment area.” Curry said the area extends roughly an hour north of the airport and 30 to 40 minutes to the east and west because of the area’s proximity to Pensacola and New Orleans.
From this catchment area, Mobile currently retains about 53 percent of potential passengers, Curry said in the news conference.
“So, 47 percent of traffic that should use the regional airport are using other airports,” he said. “We must try to reverse that trend.”
More than 20 percent of passengers within Mobile’s catchment area fly in and out of Pensacola, according to the study. Conversely, more than 90 percent of passengers within Pensacola’s catchment area use its airport.
The study also pointed out that a move to Brookley would bring Mobile’s passenger airport closer to a net 138,000 potential passengers, most of whom are in Baldwin County, Curry said.
“The other possibility of moving commercial service to Brookley involves bringing passengers closer to the airport,” he said. “Passengers usually use the airport that is closest to where they live. So, bringing commercial service to Brookley puts us closer to 138,000 passengers that we don’t have with Mobile Regional Airport.”
The study also included a forecast showing the possibility of United Airlines adding a flight to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. According to the study, the capital is the most popular destination for Gulf Coast travelers. Pensacola, which has a direct flight to the D.C. area, captures nearly 46 percent of the traffic to and from the capital from local travelers, the study found. Mobile gets roughly 14 percent of those travelers. The fares to D.C. are also higher out of Mobile, at an average $233 compared to $189 from Pensacola.
The addition of new routes, according to the forecast, would increase the number of passengers by 7.2 percent per year.
The study also pointed to growth in the area’s beach communities as a reason for the move. Despite the estimated growth, Curry said he’s not concerned about Gulf Shores or Orange Beach capturing passenger service. He added the timing was in MAA’s favor. Curry said any development of an airport at the beach would be at least “10 years behind.”
“We’re not worried about the beach,” he said. “We can’t worry about something that doesn’t exist.”
As for concerns from nearby residents, Councilman C.J. Small, who represents the district surrounding Brookley, said he was reviewing the plan himself and would be asking for residents’ input.
If hope for a return of passenger train service wasn’t completely derailed, it took a serious hit as Gov. Kay Ivey announced the state would not put up the $6.4 million needed over the next three years to help restore Amtrak service from Mobile to New Orleans.
In a statement, Ivey said the state could not afford the investment at this time. She added that those in support must consider the impact a return of passenger rail service would have on the Port of Mobile.
The funds would have matched money set aside in the omnibus spending bill signed by President Donald Trump earlier this year. More than $35 million from that bill was set aside to help restore services impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Another $592.5 million was set aside for rail improvements, and would have included a twice-daily route from New Orleans to Mobile.
Stimpson said while he personally supports the idea of restoring passenger rail service, he understood Ivey’s decision — especially, he said, given that MIssissippi would also not be contributing.
However, Stimpson did confirm that the city would continue with designs for a new station, financed through a Southern Rail Commission grant.
In a letter, Mobile City councilors urged Ivey to support the rail project.
“As members of the Mobile City Council, we urge you to commit to allocating the required funds necessary to bring Amtrak service back to our city,” the letter reads. “Through that commitment and the return of service, the region and state will see a tremendous positive impact resulting from both increased tourism and economic development opportunities.”
Coincidentally, the letter was not signed by Councilman John Williams or Councilwoman Bess Rich.
Members of the Mobile County Legislative Delegation also sent a letter to Ivey asking for support on the issue.
“Today, the opportunity exists to potentially bring many additional millions of dollars in annual tourism spending to Alabama … ” the letter reads. “As members of Mobile’s State Legislative Delegation, we urge you to commit to allocating the necessary funding to support the federal grant programs being sought by the Southern Rail Commission, which will fund bringing Amtrak back to Mobile.”
Wiley Blankenship, an SRC commissioner representing Alabama, said he was “disappointed but understanding” of Ivey’s decision. He added that her support of the project in other ways should be “applauded.”
Blankenship said the SRC has some work to do in helping to convince Ivey of the project’s merits and the “impact of passenger rail” on the state.
“There’s another opportunity for this during the next round of funding,” he said. “This is a minor setback.”
Blankenship said the Amtrak route from Mobile to New Orleans would not impact the port because it wouldn’t have to travel beyond a proposed passenger station outside of the port. He also said the passenger train would be on a separate rail and not affect freight lines.
“The train never enters the port,” Blankenship said. “We have a little bit of education to do.”
The port would be impacted if the train were to terminate in Atmore, which would require an expansion of service beyond what the grants would have helped pay for, Blankenship said.
Mobile River Bridge project
Meanwhile on the roads, the Alabama Department of Transportation was recently notified it missed out on a U.S. Department of Transportation grant that would have helped fund the proposed Mobile River Bridge project.
AlLDOT asked for $250 million from the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America, or INFRA grant, program. But while the funding request was rejected, the project team scored well on the application, which is encouraging, spokeswoman Allison Gregg said.
“We’ll re-apply for fiscal year 2019 and fiscal year 2020,” she said.
The $250 million ALDOT requested was more than any single project was awarded from the latest batch of funding. In fact, the largest proposed award was $184 million to the Georgia Department of Transportation to add express lanes on State Route 400 outside Atlanta, according to information from the USDOT website.
Gregg said the team knew they were asking for a lot from USDOT, but she added “we were very hopeful.”
The disappointment doesn’t slow down the project, though, as Gregg said it is currently in the environmental study phase.
“It doesn’t affect the timeline,” she said.
The draft environmental impact study should be released by the end of the summer, and following a public comment period, the final report should be released by the end of the year, Gregg said.
The Federal Highway Administration could then sign off on the project by the end of 2018 and a request for proposals could go out in spring 2019. Construction could start after that, in 2019, Gregg said.
The cost of the total project could be somewhat offset by proposed tolls on the bridge, as well as the Wallace Tunnel and the Bayway, Gregg said. The Causeway, the Cochrane Africatown Bridge and the Bankhead Tunnel would not be tolled, she said. The tolls would be electronic, requiring a driver to either attach a transponder to a vehicle, or be mailed a ticket based on the car’s license plate, Gregg said.