Authorities to review $ 2.1 billion I-10 project with lower tolls
Mobile and Baldwin County officials are expected to ask the Alabama Department of Transportation to continue the original $ 2.1 billion plan for the Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project, but with a cheaper toll and a toll-free route through the Wallace Tunnel.
The requests will arrive on Wednesday when the metropolitan planning organizations of Mobile and the east coast of Baldwin County meet for separate meetings at 10 a.m. Mobile MPO meets in downtown Mobile in the GM&O building; DFO Eastern Shore will meet at the same time at Daphne Town Hall.
The two groups will hold separate but similar votes asking ALDOT to proceed with the project in its entirety, as opposed to a piecemeal solution carried out in phases. The result will put the original $ 2.1 billion project back on the line, but it is not clear whether either DFO will oppose the pursuit of a public-private partnership deal championed by ALDOT. under the previous proposal which was canceled in August 2019.
“I think we’re going to basically explain what we think the components of the bridge should involve,” Fairhope City Councilor Jack Burrell, who chairs the Eastern Shore MPO Policy Committee, said last week. “I think we want the whole project to be funded, which it was, before 2019. It’s definitely, from my perspective, something we’ll be asking for.
Fort Spain Mayor Mike McMillan, also a DFO member, said he believed ALDOT “was looking for a letter of approval” to move the project forward and avoid the potential loss of a $ 125 million grant. for the Infrastructure for the Reconstruction of America (INFRA) which was awarded. to the state for the I-10 project in 2019. According to state officials, this was “one of the largest grants” ever awarded under the INFRA program.
State officials have said the grant must be cleared for construction by September 2022, or the region could risk losing it.
“They want a letter (showing their support) to move the project in a positive direction,” McMillan said. “From what I’ve been told, they won’t do the phased approach, but will make it complete and do everything at the same time.”
ALDOT spokesman Tony Harris in a statement to AL.com said the agency “continues to work with DFOs at their request to identify a way forward that meets local approval and responds to the growing needs of the region. Any future plan that moves the project forward will be based on the guidance and framework provided by DFO.
ALDOT, for months, launched a three-phase approach to the project that includes an initial phase of building an eastbound $ 675 million span for a new bridge over the Mobile River and retracing the entire from Bayway two-way to three. A second phase, at approximately $ 500 million, would include the addition of a westbound span for the new bridge.
The third phase is the most expensive and is estimated to cost around $ 1.2 billion, as it requires the complete replacement of the 7.5-mile I-10 Bayway with a new six-lane structure that would be built to meet federal guidelines. The original project, which died in 2019 in an outcry against tolls, was very similar.
Replacement of I-10 Bayway must comply with 2008 guidelines established by the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) that require the structure to be raised “well above” flood elevation levels. centennial. A reconstructed Bayway would also need to be raised above the current structure to respond to sea level rise and the effects of climate change, including high winds, flooding and storm surges.
Officials say a lower toll amount will be charged to use the bridge and the reconstructed Bayway. They also say the Wallace Tunnel will remain free, which was a point of contention in 2019, as ALDOT officials claimed few people would use the toll roads if the tunnel remained free to motorists.
The 2019 plan assessed the toll at $ 6 for a one-way ticket, an amount deemed too high by local authorities. The most recent toll request could be much lower – roughly the equivalent of the $ 2.25 toll charge imposed on motorists to use the Foley Beach Express Bridge near Orange Beach.
Kevin Spriggs, an East Coast-based businessman who has followed Project I-10 closely over the years, said he hopes ALDOT will commit to making up any difference on the project if the revenues toll charges of a lower toll amount were not enough to pay. on the links to build the structure.
“How will the State maintain recurring financing if the tolls only bring in 50% of the bond allocation?” Spriggs said. “Are they ready (to agree to support the project)? They have never been willing to do so until now. If this is the real commitment, then I think we have a plan. “
Aside from the INFRA grant, the only funding commitments for the project include $ 225 million in non-federal state grant and $ 300 million in a federal loan that would be repaid with toll revenues.
Burrell said last week he didn’t have a total figure on the new project. But he added that DFO wants a guarantee of “toll-free roads” and that “we will complete the project as soon as possible”.
The two DFOs reintegrated Project I-10 into their plans in June, and discussions of an alternative to the original proposal were bickered for months. The most publicized alternative was the construction of a truck-only toll bridge, but this plan met with opposition from the trucking industry and has since been reassessed to include a toll bridge accessible to all. the vehicles.
Officials hoped that Project I-10 would be eligible for funding through the $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure investment and jobs act (IIJA) that was approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden last month. But an ALDOT official confirmed last week that no “mega-project” would receive much funding under federal law.