While the latest Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project is similar in many ways to a highly controversial one previously defeated by local Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO), it is different in one significant way: Older infrastructure, including the Wallace Tunnel, Bankhead Tunnel, Causeway and the Africatown USA Bridge will remain free.
The newest plan, which will be voted on by those same MPO boards at the end of the month, no longer requires big trucks to pay a toll.
Tractor-trailers will be able to use a free route through the Wallace Tunnel and avoid tolls for the new Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project, an Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) official confirmed at a public hearing Wednesday evening.
Edwin Perry, ALDOT project manager for the bridge, said during a public hearing hosted by the Mobile Metropolitan Planning Organization that truckers looking to avoid a proposed $18 toll on the new infrastructure could do so by taking the Wallace Tunnel and connecting to the Causeway, which will both remain free routes.
This new information potentially alleviates the concerns of many that truckers and trucking companies would exclusively use the Africatown USA Bridge to slide past the tolled routes.
“We’ll look and study how many trucks will use the [new] bridge,” he said.
Perry added that the Africatown USA Bridge would remain the free route for trucks carrying hazardous materials. Those types of trucks already take the bridge, instead of the Wallace Tunnel.
Big trucks will still bear the brunt of tolls used to pay off financing and federal loans on the project, which is estimated to cost $2.7 million. The tolled route will range from $18 or less for trucks with an ALGO pass to $31.50 for trucks without a pass.
To compare, regular passenger vehicles with an ALGO pass will be charged $2.50 per trip, while vehicles without a pass will be charged $5.50, Perry said.
The $2.50 and the $18 ALFO pass tolls will be the maximum charged for the project. Perry said the tolls could be lessened depending upon how much federal funding is available.
An ALGO pass will be similar to Florida’s SunPass or Georgia’s Peach Pass and will be readily available for any driver. The pass will be available to purchase for a one-time fee of around $5, he said.
Drivers of everyday vehicles without the ALGO pass transponder will be charged $5.50 to cross the project’s new infrastructure.
The project will use electronic tolling, which means either an ALGO pass transponder on the windshield will be scanned or a vehicle’s license plate will be scanned. The toll gantry, where the information will be collected, will be located at the mid-bay interchange of the new Bayway, Perry said.
In addition, ALDOT will offer a $40-per-month unlimited use pass designed for commuters. If used during a typical work month, a driver would spend less than $1 per trip.
Prices for the tolls will also vary on the height of the vehicle. Vehicles lower than 7.5 feet, which includes almost all everyday vehicles, will be charged one rate and vehicles taller than that will be charged more, Perry said.
For those concerned the tunnels will be removed in the future to accommodate the port, Alabama State Port Authority spokesperson Judy Adams thoroughly debunked that rumor. Not only does the portion of the shipping channel that needs to accommodate a vessel with a 50-foot draft start south of the tunnels, but the area north of the tunnels, called the Upper Harbor, will never be able to accommodate ships large enough to need dredging for 50 feet of clearance, Adams said.
“The tunnels are not going anywhere,” she said.
The issue in the Upper Harber, Adams said, is the river isn’t wide enough to service ships longer than 750 feet. The banks are about 1,000 feet apart and so to make room for bigger Panamax and super Panamax ships, companies along the water would have to be relocated and the area would have to be excavated.
It would also literally take an act of Congress to allow the Upper Harbor to be dredged more than 40 feet, she said. The lack of ability to service larger ships in the Upper Harbor will not have a negative impact on the port, Adams said, because the vessels known as the “workhorses” of global shipping in ports that service Mobile only need 40 feet of clearance.
The area of the port being dredged for 50 feet is south of the tunnels, where APM Terminals is located, Adams said.
The bridge project will not negatively impact the port, Adams said; that’s why they fully support it.
Stephen Worley, a bridge project spokesperson, said there are no plans to remove the bridges and the alternate routes will remain free.
Unlike previous bridge plans, the newest plan does not include a concessionaire and is wholly owned by the state. This means the toll will be retired when the project is paid for, Perry said.
The larger project will be split into two groups — the six-lane cable-stay bridge and the interchanges leading to it, and the Bayway and the interchanges leading to it. By tackling the projects at the same time, Perry said, ALDOT can work along a faster timeline. Currently, the project is set to get underway in 2023 and will be completed in 2028.
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