Toll opponents from both sides of Mobile Bay came together Aug. 15 to voice concerns over the Alabama Department of Transportation’s (ALDOT) plans to place tolls on a new Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project. While some complaints focused on the proposed project’s location or cost, others questioned the need for a “90-foot-tall” bridge, a plan to get rid of the current tunnels and the origins of the agency’s public-private partnership to build the structure.
The meeting, hosted by the local Tea Party group known as the “Common Sense Campaign,” was set to discuss alternatives and the individual and community impacts of ALDOT’s planned $6 toll on the new bridge crossing over the Mobile River. Karen Burton, a Spanish Fort resident told those in attendance the toll would force her to keep her money in Baldwin County, or cause her to travel to Pensacola.
“A lot of Baldwin County business employees are from Mobile,” she said. “It will have a major economic impact to Mobile and Baldwin counties.”
Micheal Clay, who owns property in both counties said the “debacle” will negatively impact him and everyone else in the room, even if they don’t use it.
“The ripple effect of this on our community will be devastating,” he said. “It doesn’t seem we’re getting checks and balances.”
Those in attendance, including elected officials such as Republican State Sen. Greg Albritton, lambasted ALDOT for not considering an economic impact study on the toll before making it such an integral part of the new bridge project.
Albritton told attendees an economic impact study was not required and only an environmental impact study was required by law.
“I would argue it needs to be done,” he said. “[The bridge] will be creating a barrier to transportation.”
However, an initial economic impact study was included in the agency’s Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Study (EIS), ALDOT spokesperson Allison Gregg said.
The study can be found on page 13 of the EIS executive summary. The study takes into account that a toll would disproportionately impact the budgets of “low-income” drivers, but that drivers and commuters could take an untolled route along the Causeway, Bankhead Tunnel or the Cochrane–Africatown USA Bridge.
The construction of the tolled bridge would result in heavier use of the alternative untolled routes, the study found.
“Measures to manage congestion and maintain access to businesses along these routes will be implemented prior to tolling commencement,” the study reads.
In addition to this preliminary study, Gregg said ALDOT is currently undertaking a more in-depth economic impact study that could take “months” or even “years.”
A number of those in attendance, including Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood, complained about a federally mandated increase of the Bayway’s height above the 100-year floodplain.
Haygood called the height requirement an “unfunded mandate.” He added while individual cities have no authority over interstate highways, those municipalities are beginning to make their voices heard.
In other comments, Haygood supported the idea of lowering the overall estimated cost of the bridge back to the $850 million that had been proposed previously.
One toll-fighter complained of a plan for a “90-foot” bridge. It’s unclear if the person was commenting about the proposed Bayway height or the proposed bridge height, but there is no plan for a 90-foot bridge anywhere in the plans, Gregg said.
The plan would be to raise a new Bayway by 10 feet compared to its current height, she said. The current Bayway is anywhere between 10 and 14 feet above the water level. That means, the new Bayway would rise between 20 and 24 feet above the water, Gregg said.
The Mobile River Bridge is expected to rise to 215 feet, she said. This height is to help make sure the project doesn’t interfere with port operations or with any future arrival of a extra-large cruise ship, she said.
In an email, Gregg wrote ALDOT conducted storm analyses that showed a 100-year flood event would “catastrophically damage” a major portion of the existing Bayway structure beyond repair. The new height was determined using Federal Highway Administration guidelines, Gregg wrote.
In addition, ALDOT performed structural analyses to determine if the current Bayway could be retrofitted to protect if from a 100-year storm, Gregg wrote.
“The analysis revealed that even with the retrofit design, the uplift buoyant force from the waves for a 100-year storm damaged 75 (percent) of the bridge beyond repair,” she wrote. “The cost of retrofitting the existing Bayway and providing a new widened Bayway (that also would be required to withstand the wave impact forces) was more expensive than replacing it with a new bridge above the wave impacts and meeting the … requirements.”
Those in attendance also had concerns over the profit margins for the concessionaire ultimately chosen for the project. According to Lagniappe’s own projections, the winning project bidder stands to make more than $8 billion on tolls from the estimated $2.1 billion bridge project.
Gregg defended the profit, saying the concessionaire would have to pay some money back in interest on the financing of the project.
ALDOT is also going to use a toll buydown policy, Gregg said. This means as federal funding is used for the bridge, the agency will pay off the debt and the toll will be reduced.
The toll, which Gregg said is set to max out at $6, will be based on “supply and demand.” This means if a concessionaire is not seeing the number of users it needs to see to help pay for the bridge, they can lower the toll to entice more drivers to take it.
As for a plan to get rid of the tunnels to make the shipping channel deeper, Gregg said there are no plans to remove the tunnels. She said ALDOT is “committed to provide a free route” across the bay. The state Port Authority did not return a call seeking comment on the plan.
As for concerns the project will be funded with foriegn money, each of the project teams consist of firms with headquarters outside of the U.S. The companies making up the Mobile River Bridge Group, I-10 Mobility Partners and Gulf Coast Connectors are headquartered in the U.S., Canada, Israel, Spain, Netherlands, Australia and Germany.
A meeting of the state’s toll authority to discuss this project is set for Monday, Oct. 7 at 1:30 p.m. in the Capitol building.
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