By Dale Liesch and Gabriel Tynes
Last week, the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) gave Mobilians their last chance to comment in person on plans for the new Interstate 10 bridge and Bayway before submitting its environmental plans to the federal government for approval.
As was the case at a similar meeting in Spanish Fort days before, residents primarily expressed concerns over the proposed $3-to-$6 tolls to cross the span, in addition to some environmental impacts of the project.
As currently proposed, the tolls will be segmented depending upon how much of the Bayway is traversed, bridge project spokesperson Allison Gregg said.
“If we say $3 to $6, that’s for use of the entire alignment,” she said. “That’s like all the way through [from Daphne] to Virginia Street. To help drivers who don’t want to pay to take the entire alignment, you can take a segment of the road.”
According to information from the meeting, there are three proposed segments subject to the toll. The first begins at Virginia Street and will encompass the new bridge to the Bayway; the second will begin at the eastern foot of the bridge and will end where the Bayway intersects with the Causeway; and the third will extend east from there to U.S. Route 98 in Daphne. Gregg said ALDOT has not determined how much will be charged for each segment.
But according to State Sen. Chris Elliott, whether it is $3, $6 or somewhere in between, it is too much of a burden to bear for local commuters. He said studies indicate those crossing the span both ways five days a week will pay more than $200 per month on average.
“While I understand the need and the benefit for a toll — a good bit of this gets to be paid by users [who live] outside the state of Alabama — we must have a very significant and substantial frequent user discount so our local folks, who are already putting a large amount of taxpayer money into this project, will not bear a disproportionate burden of the cost,” he said. “Unfortunately ALDOT’s plan is doing just that.”
Elliott said opposition to the tolls has been building since they were unveiled a month ago at a breakfast sponsored by the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce, but he is also concerned local residents may not be aware of some of the fine print of ALDOT’s existing proposal.
“It’s tied to the Consumer Price Index, so you may have increases to the stated toll amount while the project is under construction,” he said. “Another major sticking point is ALDOT’s plan to include maintenance costs up front. All the painting, resurfacing, bridge deck maintenance, all of that is being put on our local commuters and nowhere else in the state of Alabama are we requesting users to pay for ongoing maintenance.”
Elliott said he already attends weekly meetings with stakeholders in the project, but is currently organizing a larger meeting between Gov. Kay Ivey, ALDOT officials and the legislative delegations of Baldwin and Mobile counties. He’s hoping with last month’s passage of a new 10-cent gas tax, the state will increase its up-front commitment to the project.
“The state has passed one of the most significant infrastructure increases for ALDOT in 26 years and we absolutely should be using some of that money in order to pay the public subsidy of this project in order to reduce the toll rate for our local drivers,” he said.
On May 7, he sent a letter to ALDOT and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) warning about the effects on secondary and tertiary routes due to toll avoidance and urging the agencies to commit more money and include a “buy-down clause” that would allow the state to reduce tolls as it is able.
“Other projects in different parts of the state have similarly elevated costs without having to be tolled,” he wrote, providing a brief list of examples. “In all of these cases, none of the residents of those areas were asked to have to consider a toll to pay for these projects.”
For those concerned about free access along the Causeway and Bankhead Tunnel leading to increased traffic bypassing the toll, Gregg said ALDOT would look at “access mitigation” and traffic control to ensure “traffic remains safely flowing and free flowing along that route.”
“That means traffic lights, looking at medians so we can control where people are crossing over, and also making sure that people have access to different restaurants and the fishing areas,” she said.
As for Government Street on the Mobile side, Gregg said there are mitigation plans for the route as well. She admitted she wasn’t 100 percent up to speed on the plans, but said the city and ALDOT are looking at signal synchronization to help move traffic.
Separately, State Auditor Jim Zeigler announced on Sunday he had a plan to build the bridge that wouldn’t rely on tolls at all. He posted on a Facebook page he would submit his proposal through the public comment period.
The public comment period ends at 5 p.m. May 23 on the supplemental draft environmental study that ALDOT will submit to DOT after a number of changes were made to the initial draft study, including the addition to pedestrian and bike paths as well as the expansion of the Bayway, Gregg said.
“So, now we have to come to the public and say, ‘This is what has changed,’ and then the feds will say, ‘OK, you can move forward, or no you cannot,’” she said. “That’s their record of decision.”
Bob Chappelle, a Mobile resident and Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce employee, was reviewing a digital flyover of the bridge concept at the event. Chappelle said he was interested in learning more about how the new interchanges might impact trucking companies and the port.
“It’s important that this project interconnects well with APM Terminals,” Chappelle said. “I’m interested to see what they have planned.”
Chappelle said he supported the project and thought ALDOT had done a good job outlining the concept.
The new plans for the bridge included an extensive bike and pedestrian pathway that snakes around the project and includes the Cochrane–Africatown USA Bridge. The plans also include a pedestrian overlook on the new bridge that has benches.
To submit comments online, visit mobileriverbridge.com.
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