Is I-10 Mobile River Bridge Project Worth the $850M Price Tag?

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A recent proposal is calling for the construction of a new six-lane bridge across the Mobile River, as well as major lane expansions throughout existing bridges crossing Mobile Bay. Slated to cost $850 million, the project has been considered for years, leaving officials at a standstill whether the construction is really worth the price.

Nightmarish traffic jams are no news to residents of “The Port City.” This is particularly illustrated by the bottleneck traffic that feeds in and out of the George C. Wallace tunnel that connects the city proper to Blakeley Island and the Jubilee Parkway. Completed in 1973, the Wallace Tunnel was built to move three times as many cars as its sister toll-tunnel, Bankhead, allowing a large volume of motorists to reach the Eastern Shore without paying a toll.

Now, the large volume of vehicles on the Wallace Tunnel is causing bottleneck traffic and leading to deadly accidents. The Mobile River Bridge and the Bayway Widening Project, as it’s called, proposes to address the traffic concerns by constructing a new six-lane bridge with 215 feet of clearance over the Mobile River and widening the existing I-10 bridges across Mobile Bay from four lanes to eight.

The newspaper The Hill recently brought attention to the project, including it in its list of “Five Infrastructure Emergencies.” The publication listed the I-10 as among the most pressing projects in the country, along with projects in four metropolitan areas that include Cincinnati, New York City, Palo Alto, and Washington, D.C.

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The need for the project dates back to the early 2000s, when the Federal Highway Administration released its National I-10 Freight Corridor Study. The report predicted freight traffic on the interstate will increase at a rate twice that of automotive traffic by 2025.

The plan calls for a need to “increase the capacity of I-10 to meet existing and predicted future traffic volumes and provide a more direct route for vehicles transporting hazardous materials while minimizing impacts to Mobile’s maritime industry.”

Advocates for the new bridge also believe the project would boost the area’s economic competitiveness and provide a safe hurricane evacuation route for Gulf Coast residents, according to The Hill.

The Impact of I-10

Findings released in late 2014 by Dr. Donald Epley of University of South Alabama’s Center for Real Estate and Economic Development suggests that the construction of the bridge and its adjoining side projects would result in a statewide economic benefit of roughly $1.5 billion.

Dr. Epley’s report sees Mobile benefiting from 10,301 jobs and $22.4 million in new tax revenue during the construction process, with the state introducing a total of 18, 274 new jobs and racking up $41 million in new tax revenue.

The Federal Highway Administration’s 2014 environmental impact study also pointed to positive results. For example, $9.3 million in added travel benefits by the reduction of traveling distances, over $1 million in savings for trucks hauling hazardous materials that no longer have to detour from the Wallace Tunnel, and over $2 million in marginal benefits through costs savings in fewer pavement and repair projects.

The project could continue to boost the state’s tourism as beach boom records escalate. Just as its neighboring Florida sees breaking records in beach traffic and tourism, Alabama is not far behind. As of April, coastal Alabama hit a lodging occupancy rate of 76.4 percent, up from 67.6 in 2015. The frustrating traffic jams that extend for miles on summer weekends along I-10 would be less of a problem with the lane extensions and construction of the bridge, which would all feed drivers into the coast, advocates say.

The Alabama Department of Transportation began conducting a travel and toll study for the project in mid-April, and will likely release an environmental impact statement in 2017. Additionally, travel surveys will help the ALDOT obtain the preferences of drivers who travel across the Mobile River.

But just as national publications, officials, and locals point to its necessity, the project has met a financial hurdle: Raising money to satisfy its $850 million price tag.

Funding Frenzy

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx highlighted the importance of the project during a visit to Mobile last year. Foxx urged city officials to explore creative financing programs to fuel the plan that could bring economic prosperity and fewer traffic problems to the area.

One such program Foxx touted during his visit was a 35-year loan repayment program under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. TIFIA has, to date, supported 15 states in various projects. In the past, TIFIA has loaned Kentucky over $500 million for projects involving crossings over the Ohio River that resemble the project proposed here in Mobile.

“We have projects in this country that just can’t wait,” Foxx told members of the chamber of commerce, according to AL.com. “You here in Mobile don’t have time to wait.”

The TIFIA program is one of the many solutions the FHA is exploring under the Build America Investment Initiative umbrella that helps to fund large-scale infrastructure projects across the country.

Officials are still grappling with a revenue source for the loan repayment and some bridge supporters like Mike Lee, co-chairman of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce’s Build the I-10 Bridge Coalition, believe that some sort of toll system will have to be implemented.

“There are probably going to move more and more to the forefront,” he told AL.com “The state can simply bond the money to build the bridge and use tolls to pay it back, so you don’t have to dip into the Highway Fund.”

As officials struggle to come up with ways to fund the project, preliminary studies and designs are underway. Drivers have no option now but to wait. “One of the biggest challenges in this whole project is keeping the momentum going and keeping it out front so it doesn’t die out,” Lee said. “We have to be sure to keep it at the forefront on the federal level.”

Major traffic jams are often a regular part of commuting, and can cause car accidents that can injure motorists and their passengers. Visit our car accident guide if you have suffered an injury from a collision or need more information about what to do if you’re involved in a car accident. We’re here to help.

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