Two upcoming meetings in both Mobile and Baldwin counties could have a tremendous impact on whether the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project is built.
The boards of the Mobile Metropolitan Planning Organization and Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization will each have to decide in upcoming meetings if the bridge project, as defined by the Alabama Department of Transportation, should be added to a list of projects supported by the Transportation Improvement Program, or TIP for the years 2020 through 2023.
Those projects left off the TIP list will not be eligible for any federal funding, South Alabama Regional Planning Director Kevin Harrison said.
The Mobile MPO board will vote on the TIP list, which includes the bridge project, on Wednesday, Aug. 21 at 9 a.m. at the GM&O building downtown, Harrison said.
“In order to spend any federal dollars on it, it has to be included in the document,” Harrison said of the bridge project. “The bridge is listed in the Mobile urban area and the Eastern Shore urban area.”
The Mobile MPO will be taking up the bridge project, after it was recommended for approval by the 35-member Technical Coordinating and Citizens Advisory Committee, or TCC, on July 31, Harrison said.
Mobile’s MPO is chaired by Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson and includes the following voting members: Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl, Mobile County Engineer Bryan Kegley, Mobile City Councilman John Williams, Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson, Prichard Mayor Jimmie Gardner, Prichard City Councilman Lorenzo Martin, Chickasaw Mayor Byron Pittman, Saraland Mayor Howard Rubenstein, Satsuma Mayor Thomas Williams, Creola Mayor William Criswell, Bayou la Batre Mayor Terry Downey, Semmes Mayor David Baker, WAVE Transit General Manager Damon Dash and ALDOT Southwest Region Engineer Matt Erickson.
While Mobile’s board will decide the possible fate of one phase of the project, the Eastern Shore MPO, which is made up of local elected officials from across the bay, will determine the fate of the Bayway project, Eastern Shore MPO coordinator Sarah Hart Sislak.
The Eastern Shore meeting will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 25, she said. There is a meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 28, Sislak said, and while it’s open to the public, the bridge project is not on the agenda.
Joe Davis, a Baldwin County commissioner and ESMPO member, said he wants to learn more about what drove the project’s cost up from $850 million to $2 billion before he makes up his mind on how to vote.
“I personally do not think we need to make it a venue,” he said, referring to plans for a walking path and observation deck. “It needs to be basic and fundamental.”
Davis admitted to not being an engineer, but acknowledged that engineers “can make choices” about how the design of the projects.
“I would prefer them not to make number choices,” he said, referring to financial decisions. “I’m about form, function and finance, or funding.”
The Eastern Shore MPO is chaired by Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood and consists of the following voting members in addition to Davis: Daphne Councilman Ron Scott, Fairhope Councilman Jack Burrell, Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson, Baldwin County Commissioner Billy Jo Underwood, Spanish Fort Mayor Mike McMillan, Loxley Councilman Richard Teal, and Erickson.
Davis is hoping ALDOT can “scale it back” in such a way to do away with plans to toll it. If not, the project will probably get a “no” vote from him.
While Harrison said he personally understands the controversy surrounding ALDOT’s plan to toll the bridge, he argued that voting against the project at this stage would not be wise.
“We can pass it now and look to make changes to it,” he said. “If we deny it, we’ve essentially killed it.”
Using data from an MPO cell phone study from July 2, 2014, Harrison argued that 54 percent of bay crossings during that time came from drivers outside of Mobile and Baldwin counties. Using ALDOT data from 2017, Harrison said the agency found that 75,000 drivers crossed the Bayway and another 25,000 crossed the Causeway.
That means that of the 100,000 drivers crossing the bay, 50,000 are from outside the two counties. Considering that the majority of drivers outside the area will only use the Bayway, Harrison argued that nearly two-thirds of that day’s traffic in July came from outside the two county area. He said that is who the toll is meant for.
“If we screw this up, they’re not coming back,” he said. “This is our one chance to have somebody else pay for it.”
He said if nothing is done, or the MPO votes this down, future travelers will have a hard time getting from one county to the other.
“It’s going to take a long time to cross the bay in 25 years,” Harrison said. “It’s going to be congested. We know this.”
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