By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
A proposed $2.7 billion I-10 toll bridge over the Mobile River advanced on Wednesday when two local groups voted to include it in their official transportation improvement plans.
Without the approval from the Eastern Shore and Mobile metropolitan planning organizations, the bridge would not be eligible for necessary federal funding.
“Putting this project back in the (transportation improvement plans) allows ALDOT to move forward with using the federal funding that’s been allocated to this project and allows us to work with the (planning organizations) to secure additional federal funds,” said Tony Harris, government relations manager for the Alabama Department of Transportation. “We’ll continue to work with these officials from both sides of Mobile Bay to move this project forward and address this critical need for our state.”
The bridge would be state owned and proposed funding includes about $1.2 billion in bonds, $1.1 billion in federal loans and $250 million in state money, according to ALDOT.
Wednesday’s votes allow for the use of $125 million in federal grant funds first announced in 2019.
It was the coastal planning organizations’ removal of a previous $2.1 billion bridge proposal in 2019 that led Gov. Kay Ivey to call it dead. The local opposition to the ALDOT proposal stemmed from proposed tolls on both the new bridge and the existing Wallace Tunnel.
“I am very pleased with the way that local officials in Mobile and Baldwin Counties have worked together to move this project forward,” Ivey said on Wednesday. “(Wednesday’s) vote was a significant step, and I will ensure ALDOT will continue to support their efforts to address this critical need for our state.”
This year’s plan is about $600 million more expensive than the 2019 proposal, an increase ALDOT attributes largely to inflation.
According to ALDOT, the new Mobile River Bridge and new Bayway plan includes toll options of $2.50 for passenger vehicles and $18 for trucks. There are also discounts for local commuters. The 2019 plan called for passenger tolls as high as $6.00.
The proposals would keep the Causeway, Wallace Tunnel, Bankhead Tunnel, and Africatown Bridge toll-free. Tolling would end when the debt on the bridge is paid off.
State Sen. Chris Elliott, who represents much of Baldwin County, had opposed the 2019 plan because of the toll price and plan to toll existing roadways. He said the new proposal should win the “most improved award.”
“I think the MPOs deserve a lot of credit for working through this and figuring out where the sticking points were. ALDOT did a good job this time working with the locals to figure out a proposal that was palatable. I don’t think anybody got everything they wanted but I think we’re in a good spot,” Elliott said.
“This is a must-do. This is something that we absolutely have to figure out a way to accomplish.”
The transportation department has said it will also continuously seek additional federal funding to offset project costs and pay down debt as quickly as possible.
Among those who have advocated for the new bridge is the Alabama Trucking Association.
Association President Mark Colson told Alabama Daily News Wednesday’s votes by the local leaders was a positive step.
“We are encouraged by several factors of the project, including that the entire project is completed in one comprehensive phase, it keeps existing routes toll-free and open to all motorists and it allows all motorists to utilize the new bridge,” Colson said. “It aims to administer tolls as efficiently and equitably as possible and that tolls are eliminated once the original debt is serviced. In our view, these are all very positive components that the updated framework hopes to achieve.”
According to ALDOT, pending finalized funding, construction of the new Mobile River Bridge and Bayway would begin in late 2023 and be complete by 2028.