We got up early Sunday to hit the second leg on our return from the annual family trip to the Florida Keys. We’d stayed with my brother’s family in St. Augustine Saturday night, but wanted to get an early start to — hopefully — beat the major traffic jams that are part of west-bound I-10 as it heads into Mobile at the end of any holiday weekend.
Things were smooth as Ann Street all the way through Florida and our hopes were high. “Not so fast!” the traffic gods commanded as we crossed into Alabama and ran into more or less 40 miles of bumper-to-bumper fun crawling towards the Azalea City. The traffic apps urged abandoning the I-10 madness for Baldwin’s back roads, but we figured Waze and Google Maps were prodding everyone else to do the same, so we endured poking along with the end of our journey tantalizingly close.
Eventually we did bail on the I-10 parking lot at Malbis, headed up to Stapleton and caught 31 down to the bay without a hitch. We ate lunch at Ed’s watching those poor suckers slog across the Bayway at speeds only a turtle would admire.
Times like these bring out the frustrated traffic engineer in me — the one who as a child created amazing orange Hot Wheels track thoroughfares in my bedroom that drew looks of pride from my parents. So I studied the myriad problems that make it possible for a relatively low population area like southwest Alabama to become the biggest traffic clog along I-10’s path from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Buc-ee’s certainly isn’t making traffic better, for instance. The relatively new Walmart-meets-Cracker Barrel-meets-Stuckey’s roadside destination looms over the entrance to the Baldwin Beach Express, sometimes backing traffic up onto the interstate as car after car lines up to try to gain access to the gigantic parking lot.
It’s hardly Buc-ee’s fault it’s become so popular so quickly, but combined with the number of people just trying to get to the beach, Buc-ee’s delicious chopped brisket sandwiches certainly haven’t made driving through Baldwin County any easier. The next big clog heading west is the Highway 59 interchange — the main run down to Gulf Shores. That’s followed by the snarl at Malbis created by shoppers and people in moving vans relocating to Baldwin. Neither of those are anything new, but they get worse every year.
However, a good bit of this mess heading west through Baldwin is made possible by the almighty Bayway, Causeway and our two tiny tunnels.
I just took my daughter to get her driver’s permit this week, but before this new would-be driver was even born we were talking about how the traffic snarl along I-10 was getting worse and would need to be alleviated by building a large bridge over the Mobile River. The better part of two decades later we’re now told this bridge project is going to cost more than $2 billion, will include raising and widening the Bayway and also include a toll as high as $6 one way.
The hell raising over this proposed toll has been impressive and has caused the bridge project to become one of the hottest of political hot potatoes around. ALDOT aims to build the bridge with a public-private partnership that will last 50 years or more and net the private half of this deal billions in profit. Meanwhile the average Mobile-Baldwin resident who makes the round trip five times a week for work would spend an additional $3,100 on tolls annually. Teeth are a-gnashing.
At a town hall meeting in Magnolia Springs Monday, U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne spent a good bit of his time trying to explain to the assembled crowd how little he could actually do to affect funding for the bridge, even as he aims to trade up to the U.S. Senate. The irony of our local constituency — one that typically derides federal involvement in almost anything — demanding that Washington reach down and save us from tolls might be funny if this issue wasn’t so potentially damaging to the area.
Byrne is pitching the steaming tater to ALDOT and the governor’s office, but they don’t appear either ready or able to handle it. State leaders simply pull their empty pockets inside out and shrug.
The political theater of it all is getting worse daily. Clownish State Auditor Jim Zeigler is now adding “Bridge Designer” to his resume’s “Experience” column, right above “Ex-lawyer who bilked elderly clients,” as he seeks to use the bridge as a pathway to running for U.S. Senate. It was Ziggy who sicced some of the anti-toll folks on Byrne at his town hall meeting. Zeigler is touting an idea of using post office savings to pay for a bridge he says can easily be scaled down to cost just $800 million.
Even as we argue about all of this, no actual funding plan is in place for the bridge project. People involved in the program say a best-case scenario might have actual bridge building starting in two years and then it would take eight years of construction — if everything goes right. So my new driver might be able to pay her first $6 toll by the time she’s in her mid-20s, at best. That’s discouraging.
This can has been kicked down the road so long it’s pathetic. We’re looking at a decade or more of ever-worsening traffic making it harder to get across the bay. The lack of leadership at both the state and federal levels on this issue is appalling. Certainly the Luv Guv was completely uninterested in the bridge, and so far Kay Ivey hasn’t exactly made it a priority.
The average Mobilian hardly seems to want the bridge anymore because of the toll plan. I will say being stuck 40 miles from Mobile traveling 20 mph makes $6 to get home seem like a deal, but that price is far too much for locals to bear.
Still, the one thing we seldom hear about these days is how the bridge will alleviate our traffic problem. That’s what it’s all supposed to be about, right? Even ALDOT admits a $6 toll is going to mean fewer people using I-10, which means more cars clogging currently usable roadways. So how is this a solution?
I’m starting to think the only way we’ll ever get funding for this thing is to pile state and federal politicians and transportation chiefs in a van on I-10 in Baldwin this coming Labor Day. That would get their attention.
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