Having ballooned from initial projections of $800 million to nearly $2 billion today, the Interstate 10 bridge project over the Mobile River would be impossible for the Alabama Department of Transportation to fund on its own.
That’s why the cable-stayed suspension bridge and Bayway widening project is the state’s first public-private partnership, Project Manager Matt Erikson told a group participating in a freight forum hosted by the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission (SARPC) Monday, Aug. 20.
The project comes at a time when the state struggles to properly fund its roadway projects, Alabama Transportation Institute (ATI) Executive Director Shashi Nambisan, Ph.D., told forum participants.
Several factors are to blame when it comes to the state’s poor infrastructure funding, Nambisan said. For one, the gas tax, which helps pay for much infrastructure, has not increased since 1992. Meanwhile, the cost of construction has increased.
It now costs $175 to purchase the same amount of construction materials $100 would buy in 1992, Nambisan said. At the same time, vehicles are more fuel efficient. This means the average driver spends less on gas and therefore pays less tax.
“The gas tax has roughly stayed the same,” he said, noting the replacement costs of the state’s roads and bridges keep climbing. “Alabamians are paying 40 percent less in taxes.”
Over 10 years, the cost to replace the state’s infrastructure is slated at about $631 billion. In the next 20 years that increases to $1.03 trillion, Nambisan said. Further, the state only takes in about $1.6 billion in revenue from the gas tax, which means drivers only pay one half of 1 percent of the value of the state’s roadways.
There have been discussions of raising the gas tax by 8 cents to 10 cents per gallon, but Nambisan believes it needs to be raised to three or four times that.
As the number of vehicles on the road continues to increase, so does the need for more capacity. From 1990 to 2015, the number of vehicles on the state’s roadways has increased by 46 percent, while the number of miles traveled by those vehicles has increased by 57 percent. Meanwhile, capacity has grown just 14 percent.
“You have congestion, delays and other safety concerns,” Nambisan said. “It’s a tremendous amount of cost.”
Leaving roadway capacity at its current level could also have a negative impact on economic development, he said.
By 2040, Nambisan said, commuter delays on the state’s roadways could cost $1.4 billion. The economic impact of such delays could be $2.5 billion. By 2040, the average commuter will spend 41 hours per year stuck in traffic. This is up from nine hours in 2016.
“The cost of doing nothing is not zero,” he said. “It’s huge. We need informed decision-making by our elected officials.”
ATI, a department of The University of Alabama, recently signed a lease with the city of Mobile to move into about 2,000 square feet of space at GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico. Nambisan said two employees of the institute would be in Mobile permanently, while others would visit on an “as-needed” basis.
Bridges in the state are in bad shape as well. Of 15,954 bridges, 5,753 are more than 50 years old, Nambisan said. Bridges are designed to last 50 to 70 years.
“We don’t have to rebuild this overnight,” Nambisan said. “We need to rebuild them, though, and part of it is we don’t have the resources.”
ALDOT is still working through the environmental process on the proposed Mobile River bridge, Erikson told the group.
Erikson, the project manager, said the environmental impact study is the final hurdle before a request for proposals can be issued to the project’s three developer teams.
The timeline really begins in March of next year, when ALDOT plans to send out a final request for proposals. From there, it’ll take three to four months for development teams to make final pitches before one is selected. After a four- to five-month period, construction is expected to begin in early 2020, Erikson said.
SARPC Transportation Director Kevin Harrison also presented a new freight survey at the meeting, which asks about local trucking companies’ routes to help gather data for future planning.
The survey asks about “choke points” on local roadways, tolls on the proposed river bridge and the effects of a pedestrian-friendly Water Street on the trucking business.
“We did a local survey in 2010 and it helped us develop freight zones,” Harrison said. “We did get pretty good data out of it.”
Harrison said he wants to go live with the new survey in “about a week or so” at mobilempo.org/freight.