Mobile’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is expected to approve a 25-year plan for road projects and public transportation known as Destination 2040 in March, but if federal funding remains stagnant, financing the $1 billion of needed infrastructure projects could be easier said than done.
Officials with the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission (SARPC) discussed Destination 2040 last week, and most comments from the public were centered on improvements to Mobile’s WAVE Transit System and the highly anticipated I-10 Bridge project.
The long-range plan, a requirement to obtain federal funding, doesn’t guarantee any projects, but rather provides a framework for what additional capacity will be needed over the next 25 years.
Using Census data, SARPC essentially predicted population growth and urbanization in the region identified in the Mobile Area Transportation Study (MATS), which at 44 miles north to south and 26 miles east to west is substantially larger than the city itself.
Based on models, SARPC predicted the urban areas in the county will expand significantly between now and 2040, with the population jumping 9 percent from 412,000 today to more than 445,000 by 2040. Predictive modeling also suggests a similar increase in employment and an even larger growth in the number of households.
All of the growth translates to more use of the county’s system of roads, which means more congestion and an increased need for capacity projects to raise the number of cars that can safely operate on area roadways.
“Destination 2040 is the only plan that matters in terms of federal transportation assistance,” Kevin Harrison, director of transportation planning at SARPC said. “Any federal surface project that comes into the (MATS) area will have to be voted on by the MPO.”
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1962 created MPOs, which are required in any urban area with a population of 50,000 or more. The board of the Mobile MPO comprises 16 members including several area mayors, District 3 County Commissioner Jerry Carl, local and state transportation officials and Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who recently took over as chairman.
Harrison said the 50 recommended road projects are balanced with projected revenues over the next 25 years and prioritized by necessity. In the draft plan, projects are broken down into three phases with each costing an estimated $299 million, $627 million and $123 million respectively.
Of those, the most immediate include widening Zeigler Boulevard between Schillinger and Tanner Williams roads, improvements and widening projects at various places along Airport Boulevard and an extension of State Highway 158 westward to the state line.
Those projects, considered Phase I, are planned in a window of time between 2015 and 2020. The I-10 bridge project, which is estimated to be at least $600 million by itself, is included among the Phase II projects — scheduled for funding between 2020 and 2030.
Harrison said the I-10 bridge was included in the plan even though funding for it hasn’t been identified.
Though federal dollars will fund the majority of these planned improvements, each project will also have a local sponsor picking up 20 percent of the tab for general road projects and 10 percent for Interstate projects.
Despite the detailed plans and their imminent acceptance from the local MPO, there could still be some bumps in the road before these projects start moving along. According to Harrison, the Alabama Department of Transportation only plans to spend $150 million on additional capacity projects per year.
Harrison said the lean budget is because the vast majority of the $700 million the state receives from the Highway Trust Fund, the result of federal tax on gasoline, is spent to maintain and improve the current roads and bridges in the state and pay of bond debt accrued over the years.
“The federal government hasn’t had a gas tax increase since 1996, and that revenue stream hasn’t changed,” Harrison said. “But, the cost of concrete, labor and everything else has gone up. Everything cost more to build, but we have the same amount of money to build it with. That’s the real problem.”
A link to all of the suggested road projects as well as the entire draft of Destination 2040 is available on this story at lagniappemobile.com.
Though the majority of residents travel by car, the MPO also manages public transit in the urbanized area and also has several bicycle and pedestrian tracks planned as well.
The WAVE transit gets certain amount of federal dollars that require a 20 percent match for capital expenses and 50 percent match for operating funds, but even with the federal assistance, some are still dissatisfied with the quality of Mobile’s only public transportation option.
In 2014, Lagniappe reported that Mobile contributes more than half of the WAVE’s $10 million operational costs annually. However, with improvements already sorely needed and no other municipal partners stepping up the plate, the city’s cost to provide transportation for more than one million riders may only increase over the next 25 years.
“Historically, the (WAVE’s) dependence on the declining source of federal funding has hurt the system and has underscored the necessity for a dedicated source of funding to insure its vitality,” the draft reads. “During the next 25 years, a dedicated and secure source of funding other than the city’s general revenue funds should be identified to provide stability and insure the availability of adequate funding for operating the transit system.”
Currently, WAVE operates 14 routes, most on a 60-minute headway and sees just under 6,000 average weekday boardings. Like the road projects, Destination 2040’s plans for the transit system is also broken down into multiple phases, each with an estimated increase to annual operating costs.
Phase I would streamline a few of the routes existing currently and combine others to increase efficiency at an increased cost of $60,000 annually. Phase II, a $278,000 increase, would make “minor changes and improvements” to several WAVE routes and establish two additional routes — one to the Mobile Regional Airport and the other to the Airbus facility at the Brookley complex.
The third phase would transform the transit system in terms of accessibility to services and customer convenience. The final phase would be aimed at cutting the average 60 minute overhead time in half, but such an ambitious revamping would require a steep increase in WAVE’s operational cost, roughly $6.5 million annually.
“These are only recommendations to WAVE. That’s all we can do,” Harrison said. “They and the city of Mobile are responsible for initiating those projects.”
Harrison said many states don’t fund public transportation. Despite that, he said SARPC has tried reach out to state officials about the possibility of supplementing WAVE.
Because the federal government is now required to factor climate change into long-term planning, air quality regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency could wind up helping Mobile, at least from a public transportation standpoint.
According to Harrison, Alabama’s air quality levels meet federal standards already, but if new regulations mean they exceed maximum parts per billion, the state could be subject to vehicle inspections like many others.
“I’ve written the governor and asked, if there are inspections — those fees — could they be used for state transit funds,” Harrison said. “The only reason we don’t have state transit funds now is because the highway trust says they have to be used for highway dollars and not transit dollars.”
Harrison said he has yet to receive a response from Bentley’s office.