Eastern Shore residents object to bridge toll proposal

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SPANISH FORT – Residents support plans for more highway lanes between Baldwin and Mobile, but a toll that commuters said could cost them $2,000 a year raised objections at a meeting to discuss the project Tuesday.

The Alabama Department of Transportation held two public hearings this week to discuss the Interstate 10 bridge and Bayway replacement planned between Spanish Fort and Mobile. The first meeting was Tuesday at the Spanish Fort Community Center, followed by a meeting Thursday in Mobile.

The project includes a six-lane cable stay bridge that will be 2.5 miles long over the Mobile River. The Bayway will be expanded to eight lanes of traffic along a seven mile route that will be raised to be above the 100-year storm surge level. Seven interchanges on the route will also be rebuilt or modified.

At the Spanish Fort meeting, Roger Nelson of Daphne told ALDOT officials if the tolls were in the middle of that range, $4.50 each way, that would cost daily commuters like him more than $2,000 a year. Even with a proposed 15 percent discount for those making more than 20 trips a month, the cost would be more than $1,800.

“That’s a lot of money for tolls and fees,” Nelson said.

Joe Thompson of Spanish Fort said the money paid by commuters would be lost to the local economy. “The potential $2,000 a year is going to impact our economy,” he said. “Two thousand dollars a year in tolls is $2,000 that’s not being spent here.”

Allison Gregg, public information officer for the project, said tolls are the only way to pay for the bridge.

“Simply put, if we don’t toll the project, there’s no project,” Gregg said. “This is a $2-billion project and ALDOT’s annual operating budget for the whole state is about $1.3 billion. In order for us to deliver the project in a timely manner, we have to be innovative with our funding and financing.”

Gregg said tolling would be in segments. If drivers only use part of the 11-mile route, they would only pay for that portion.

Tolls would also be added to the Wallace Tunnel now used by I-10 traffic. The Causeway, Bankhead Tunnel and Cochrane-Africatown Bridge would not have tolls under the proposal.

In a statement read at the hearing, State Sen. Chris Elliott, R-District 32, said the high tolls would increase traffic on the routes where charges are not levied.

“An unreasonable costing toll on the new bridge will lead to unprecedented traffic and issues on not only the alternate routes, but the roads leading to those routes,” the statement said. “Traffic in Daphne and Spanish Fort near the current bridge is already problematic on a good day. Adding thousands of additional vehicles daily to the Causeway due to issues of toll avoidance could easily create a nightmare traffic scenario on secondary and tertiary routes.”

Tolls will not be put in place on any roads until the entire project is complete, Edwin Perry, project director, said. Construction is scheduled to start in 2020 and be completed in 2025.

The project will be a 55-year public-private partnership with a private company building the bridge and then being allowed to charge the tolls for 50 years once the five-year construction is finished, Perry said. The state will own the bridge and Bayway.

To allow ships to pass beneath it, the new bridge will be 215 feet above the river, 60 feet taller than the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge, Perry said. The structure will be the tallest cable-stay bridge in North America. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, a suspension bridge, is only 10 feet taller, he said.

He said the current Wallace Tunnel was completed in the 1970s with a projected capacity of 35,000 vehicles a day. The average now is 75,000 and the count has gone as high as 115,000 on summer holidays.

Perry said public comments will be taken on the project until May 23.

Anyone who did not attend the meetings and wants to comment or who wants more information on the project can go to the bridge website, https://mobileriverbridge.com/, Perry said.