Matt Ericksen, Alabama Department of Transportation, MRB & Bayway Project Director spoke about the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway Project during a South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce Leadership Series event on Tuesday, July 24. Once completed, the bridge will help with the large volumes of traffic that travel through the area daily.
“We realize the importance of this project not just for this region but for the country in general,” Ericksen said. “I-10 is the Southern-most transcontinental corridor in the United States and Wallace Tunnel is known as one of the main show points along this stretch of interstate. Currently we are averaging one major incident every three days that causes a backup in excess of one hour, and it’s a situation that we desperately need to get fixed.”
Ericksen stated that when the Wallace Tunnel was designed in 1973, it was designed to handle 35,000 vehicles daily. Today, the tunnel handles approximately 75,000 vehicles per day, and during peak traffic volumes (summer months and holiday travel weekends) the numbers recently increased to more than 115,000 vehicles per day. According to Ericksen, if the problem goes unchecked, I-10 will be experiencing accidents and backups daily by 2030.
“The purpose and need of this project is to increase capacity on I-10 to meet the existing and future travel volumes and to provide a direct route for vehicles that are carrying hazardous materials, which are currently prohibited from using the tunnel and have to detour through the central business district in Mobile,” said Ericksen. The project must also be completed while minimizing any impacts to the Mobile maritime industry as well as avoiding any impact to the Port of Mobile.
The project is approximately 12-miles in length and has three key elements: the modification of seven interchanges, the signature bridge that will cross over the Mobile River, and the complete replacement of the existing Bayway.
The Mobile River Bridge would start around the Broad Street interchange in Mobile and continue through the Eastern Shore interchange in Daphne. The new bridge will be a 6-lane facility, and the Wallace and Bankhead Tunnels will remain in operation. The new Bayway will be increased to an 8-lane facility as opposed to the current 4-lanes to help increase capacity.
“The cost of this project is roughly two billion dollars,” Ericksen said. “Originally ALDOT considered just widening the existing Bayway, but with some new federal regulations that came along during our design process we were not able to do so due to having to raise the elevation.”
The regulation Ericksen refers to requires that any new structures be set at an elevation that is above the 100-year storm surge event, prompting the plans for the redone Bayway to be designed 10-feet higher than the current Bayway.
“The key element of this project, and what Mobile will be known for after we get it constructed, is definitely the signature bridge over the Mobile River,” Ericksen said. “If you look at San Francisco and you pull up any of their literature, they’ll show the symbols of the Golden Gate Bridge, so when this project is complete I think you can anticipate that Mobile will be known for the significant bridge.”
The bridge will be a cable-stayed bridge, and will have a minimum vertical clearance of 215 feet. For comparison, the Golden Gate Bridge has a minimum vertical clearance of 220 feet. The public was in strong support to be able to view the bay from the top of the new bridge, so a viewing deck that will be accessible from the Downtown Mobile side has been added to the base proposal. The plans include a stairway and an elevator.
“We are also going to get additional pricing from our teams to see if it would be feasible to construct a bike path from the Battleship up to the Cochran Bridge, and we’re also going to get a price to see if it would be feasible to have the bike path continue all the way across the bridge,” Ericksen said.
After looking at multiple procurement methods, ALDOT has opted to go with a public-private partnership [P3] with the model being design, build, finance, operate, and maintain by the proposers.
“We’re about to enter a long-term relationship with the successful proposer, and they’ll be around for a concession term of 50 years,” said Ericksen. “They will have all the operation and maintenance that ALDOT currently has with our existing structures, so they’ll have everything from sweeping to vehicle assistance programs.”
Ericksen said that a P3 brings the innovation and experience of private developers and also transfers some of the risks from ALDOT to the concessionaires. The project funding sources will be from public subsidy (27%), private equity (22%), private activity bonds (18%), and a federal loan from the TIFIA office (33%). All but the funding obtained by public subsidy will be paid back via toll revenue from the new bridge.
“If you were to take out the tolling, you basically would not have a feasible project as we’ll need that revenue to pay for this project,” Ericksen said.
At two billion dollars, the Mobile River Bridge Project costs nearly twice the amount of ALDOT’s annual budget. ALDOT will be taking advantage of programs that are set up to fund major projects that are managed by the Building America Bureau, including a TIFIA loan, an INFRA grant, and private activity bonds.
“Probably the main component of our funding plan and the most essential is the TIFIA loan process,” Ericksen said. “A TIFIA loan will cover 33% of your eligible cost, so this program will cover roughly around $700 million of our project.”
As with the Beach Express Bridge, the new Mobile River Bridge will also rely on an all-electronic tolling system.
“We are currently working with the state of Florida on some interoperability agreements, so when we start collecting toll revenues in the year 2025 if you have a Sun Pass from Florida you will be able to pass through our facility and will not have to stop and get an ALDOT only transponder or use Pay by Plate,” Ericksen said.
Toll rates have not been finalized, but are predicted to be in the range of $3-$6 per trip. Similar to the Beach Express, travelers will be able to purchase a transponder or get a Pay by Plate invoice, and there will be walk-in centers in Mobile and Baldwin County. ALDOT is examining the possibility of frequent user discount programs. The tolled route will be I-10 and the Wallace Tunnel, and the toll-free route will be the Causeway, the Bankhead Tunnel, and the Cochran Bridge.
“There’s a lot to the process for a major project like this,” Ericksen said. “We are still in the environmental process, and expect to have our record of decision, or the conclusion of your environmental process, by the end of this year. Another public involvement meeting is in the plans, and we are knee-deep in the procurement process. We have short-listed our proposers from four down to three, and we meet with them monthly if not more. And with this P3 procurement, there’s a lot of interaction between the agency and the developers as they review the documents and give us comments. We are also procuring our right of way, and we’ve been doing a lot of geotechnical investigation for over two years now.”
Project procurement completion is expected by the end of 2019. The three teams that will be submitting proposals are I-10 Mobility Partners, Mobile River Bridge Group, and Gulf Coast Connectors.
“Once we have our record of decision we will be able to release to the three short-listed teams our final requests for proposals,” Ericksen said. “At that point, they will have about four months that they will need to complete their initial designs to price it and to work out their financing, so we have a date set for April 9 on when their proposals will be due back to ALDOT.”
ALDOT will review the proposals and analyze them to come up with the best valued proposal, looking at both the technical score as well as the financial score, which will be more weighted. Once the best valued proposal is selected, it will have to go through a commercial close period and a financial close period with the lenders, which could take four to six months.
“Realistically we’re probably looking at starting construction in earnest in early 2020,” said Ericksen. “Time is going to be money for these developers, the sooner they can complete the project the sooner they can take on their toll revenue … This will be one of the largest projects in the U.S., and it is ALDOT’s first public-private partnership.”
You can keep up with the project on their website mobileriverbridge.com.
For more information on the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce and upcoming events, visit their website at southbaldwinchamber.com.