As toll opposition grows in the wake of plans for user fees along the proposed Mobile River Bridge, so do calls for alternative forms of transportation to help commuters get to work in Mobile and Baldwin counties. The South Alabama Regional Planning Commission (SARPC) hopes to help.
Kevin Harrison, SARPC transportation director, said the agency is pushing two initiatives he hopes could not only help ease congestion throughout the region, but possibly help commuters avoid user fees in the future.
The Mobile Metropolitan Planning Organization, a SARPC faction, has put out a call for companies interested in studying the feasibility of a demand-response transportation system, similar in scope to the Baldwin Rural Area Transportation System, or BRATS, Harrison said.
This, ideally, would be in addition to the fixed-rate service the WAVE transit provides basically only within the city limits. Unlike WAVE, which operates a fixed-route system, a demand-response system would operate based on calls for service, Harrison said. The idea would be that the routes would be based on contracts and subscriptions from both individuals and large employers in the county.
“It would be for large employers interested in providing transportation for employees,” Harrison said.
There is also federal funding available for the project, Harrison said, through the Federal Transportation Administration, which is currently not being spent by the city, but could be used for county-wide service.
“There are new innovations in terms of applications,” Harrison said. “If we bring the 21st century into demand-response transportation, we can do this.”
If a feasibility study comes back with a positive outlook, it’s unclear who would run the service. Harrison said it could be WAVE, SARPC or another company.
Once responses to the agency’s request for proposals come in, a committee would short-list the group down to three. From there, the same committee would hear presentations from the three groups and make a decision, Harrison said.
In addition to a study on new bus service, SARPC will institute a vanpool service next year to help commuters. The vanpool would be similar to the organization’s CommuteSmart system and would use the same technology to match commuters to those who work nearby. Currently, the CommuteSmart system has a “couple hundred” people registered. The vans would be subsidized and not owned by a driver, but by a third party. A different driver would drive the vans to a location each workday, Harrison said. It’s one of many options, the organization is looking at in anticipation of the bridge project and the possible tolls.
ALDOT releases fact sheet on bridge project
In what it has dubbed the first “Myth Busters,” the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) released a statement answering some of the concerns from those who oppose a toll on the $2.1 billion bridge project.
In the statement emailed to media members Monday, July 29, ALDOT wrote that without a toll of some sort, the bridge project won’t happen.
If the project doesn’t happen, drivers will sit in congestion more regularly — and will be more likely to be late to work, pick up the kids, class and appointments,” according to the statement. “Not building the project also means the cost of the project will grow due to rising construction costs — so we will be in a worse situation down the road.”
There is a nationwide shortage of funding for infrastructure programs. Even the federal infrastructure plan endorsed by President Donald J. Trump’s administration is “heavily dependant upon tolls,” the statement read. There will be free routes across the bay, as ALDOT confirmed that the Causeway and the Bankhead Tunnel will remain in place and will not be tolled.
“With a toll, those who use the alignment pay for it,” the statement reads. “A free route will be maintained for those who do not want to pay a toll; the free route includes the Causeway, Bankhead Tunnel and the Cochrane-Africatown USA Bridge.”
In the statement, ALDOT calls tolls user fees and not a tax.
“If a driver does not use the facility, he or she does not pay for it,” according to the statement. “Drivers only pay a toll when they choose to drive on a toll road because it provides a higher level of convenience, reliability or safety.”
As for the gas tax revenue going to pay for the bridge, ALDOT contends it would not go into full effect until 2021. The tax is expected to generate some $320 million, which would not cover the cost for the entire project for years.
“If the state set aside $100 million of those annual funds and earmarked them for the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project, it would take 21 years before we could break ground,” the statement reads. “Given inflation, the cost of the project would increase significantly. Moreover, there is currently a multi-billion dollar backlog of existing road and bridge needs that will consume and even exceed the new state revenue from the Rebuild Alabama Act.”
In the statement, ALDOT also contends it welcomes federal funding and was just awarded some $120 million in INFRA grant money for the project.
“With reference to the GOMESA [Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act] funding, those funds are for projects and activities for the purposes of coastal protection, including conservation, coastal restoration, hurricane protection and infrastructure directly affected by coastal wetland losses,” according to the statement. “Those funds are not for building roads and ALDOT has no control over how those funds are allocated and distributed. Even if it was determined that this project was an eligible use for GOMESA funds, it would take away from the many local uses in Mobile and Baldwin counties that are steeped in years of precedents.”
ALDOT also confirmed what has already been widely reported about electronic tolls. The bridge project will not include toll booths as ALDOT says some have feared. The tolls will not be collected early.
“Drivers will maintain safe speeds as they pass under gantries that are equipped with cameras to capture license plates or read transponders,” the statement reads.
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