WASHINGTON – For more than a century, one of the biggest challenges for the southwest Alabama region has been transportation across Mobile Bay from Mobile to Baldwin County and vice versa.
The problem goes back all the way to the early part of the last century. The city of Mobile was still feeling the effects of the Civil War and was relatively isolated from the rest of the state. The powers in Montgomery gave little focus to Mobile and its access woes, including east-west access to and from Mobile. What access that had existed either came from the north or was provided at the time by a ferry that came at a very high cost for travelers.
Eventually what is known as the old Cochrane Bridge, a vertical lift bridge, opened in 1927. That tied Mobile to the newly built Causeway (now called Battleship Parkway), which alleviated the need for transport via ferry.
As the years passed, other east-west means of crossing the Mobile River opened. The Bankhead Tunnel came in the 1940s, providing a more direct approach than the Cochrane Bridge to the Causeway from downtown Mobile. In the 1970s, both the I-10 Wallace Tunnel and the I-65 General W.K. Wilson Bridge (also known as the Dolly Parton Bridge) opened. Then in the early 1990s, the new, cable-stayed Africatown-Cochrane Bridge opened, replacing the vertical lift bridge.
Yet in 2014, all those avenues are insufficient. Mobilians have had to deal with traffic backing up going into the Wallace Tunnel out of Mobile for more than a decade now. The Bankhead Tunnel could be in its final days as an east-west means for local traffic to Baldwin County. The Cochrane-Africatown Bridge, albeit an engineering spectacle, is an out-of-the-way route that requires drivers to make a pass through Prichard.
The city has explored other methods of transit, including bringing back ferry service between Mobile and Fairhope. But the one that seems to be the most likely fix is a new bridge for Interstate 10 across the Mobile River that would bypass the Wallace Tunnel.
Last week, a delegation of officials from Mobile and Baldwin Counties made a trip to Washington, D.C. to make a renewed push for yet another bridge, one of which will hopefully be the cure-all for this problem that has plagued the region going back to the days of the invention of the automobile.
According to Baldwin County Commissioner Tucker Dorsey, traffic, safety, hurricane evacuation and economic development were the emphasis on the trip that included visits with not only the Alabama congressional delegation, but also members from neighboring Florida and Mississippi.
“We are obviously working up here,” Dorsey explained to Lagniappe. “It’s probably the biggest regional push we’ve ever had for coastal Alabama for a project that means so much for all of us, to have a big impact on our communities.”
Mike Lee, co-chair of the Build the Bridge Coalition and also part of the delegation, explained the release of the federal government’s long-anticipated draft environmental impact study earlier this year is what prompted the newest push for the I-10 bridge. He said another series of public meetings and comment periods will have to take place until the actual design and engineering of the bridge would take place.
Part of the push will require overcoming criticisms from the project’s detractors. The arguments range from environmental concerns to the aesthetics of Mobile’s downtown skyline. Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson argued that the pros far outweigh those cons.
“We need this bridge,” Stimpson said in an interview with Lagniappe on Capitol Hill. “And anybody that’s going back and forth across the bay, anything that is being said in a negative fashion about it is overcome by the economic impact it has on the community as well as just the quality of life in the two-county area.”
Stimpson would not, however, say this bridge would be the last time this would be an issue. He warned that any further delays could compound traffic woes as he said the Bankhead Tunnel is nearing the end of its life cycle.
“There’s nothing to say you won’t be visiting it again,” he said. “One of the things that will make it kind of compound the problem that we currently have is there is a life cycle on the Bankhead Tunnel. And it is an outlet for some people to use going back and forth across the bay. When the day comes when ALDOT decides it’s no longer safe to traverse it, things are going to get worse and as it gets worse, the pressure is just going to build.”
There is an economic argument that could be made that would improve Mobile’s downtown according to the mayor with the bridge.
“The comment that I’ve made often and I think that it’s true is that there is no great city without a great downtown,” Stimpson said. “Today because of the tunnel traffic, we have congestion downtown on Government Street almost every afternoon.”
More broadly, Stimpson cited fulfilling the needs of the container port, the expansion of the Panama Canal, Airbus and Austal as a reason for the bridge’s construction.
According to a study released earlier this month by the Build the I-10 Bridge Coalition, not only the city but the entire region will benefit economically. The study determined Alabama will gain over 18,000 new jobs and $41 million in new tax revenue from the construction of the bridge. Of those 18,000 jobs, at least 10,000 will be in Mobile with $22.4 million of the projected tax revenue coming to Mobile.
Ultimately, according to the study, the area can anticipate an output activity level of $1.5 billion.
“The distribution of jobs in the regional and the distribution of the new economic activity show that the greatest impact from the construction funds will be felt in Mobile and the surrounding seven counties,” Donald Epley, director of the USA Center for Real Estate and Economic Development explained in the report.
The I-10 bridge discussion is not really new. It goes back as far as the completion of the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge.
But this time the region has a new congressman in Rep. Bradley Byrne and there are no competing interests detracting from this effort. Byrne’s predecessor Jo Bonner spend a sizable chunk of his decade in the U.S. House of Representatives pushing for EADS KC-X tanker contract. Bonner also had to deal with procuring and protecting of the Austal LCS contract.
Byrne and Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby will likely still be dealing with scoring work for Austal for some time. However, without the daunting task of stealing a record defense contract from Boeing for EADS, the prospects of help from Washington, D.C. on the construction of a new I-10 bridge are more promising than ever before.