Note: The blog post has been updated throughout.
A second hearing on the Mobile River Bridge and was held at the Mobile Civic Center, and surprisingly, only fourteen people signed up to speak. This second meeting didn't give us a whole lot of new information, if any. But according to al.com, the public comments covered a lot more ground than the toll-centric discussion in Spanish Fort a couple of days earlier. At Tuesday's meeting, ALDOT officials confirmed that the Bridge/Bayway toll would be anywhere from $3 to $6 one way, and heavy users (read: commuters) would receive a 15% discount on tolls, if they make 20 trips or more per month. That news didn't sit well with Eastern Shore residents, who have already taken the worst case scenario and imagined an annual toll bill pushing upwards of $2400. And if you have two family members working in Mobile, go ahead and double it.
$2000 A Year in Tolls, Just To Get To Work? This Plan Won't Work For Me!
It's got a lot of Eastern Shore residents considering how best to avoid those tolls. Our own Mary Booth, for instance, has suggested that she'd rather fight the increased traffic volumes on the Causeway rather than pay the toll. Toll avoidance is a real issue, and something ALDOT says they are giving a lot of thought to. As it stands, folks will be able to avoid tolls altogether by simply taking the Causeway and using either the Bankhead Tunnel into Downtown Mobile, or taking the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge. ALDOT is only planning to add tolls on the new Mobile River Bridge and Bayway, as well as the Wallace Tunnel.
The Mobile River Bridge Has A Tolling Problem
This creates a tolling problem and a real fear of horrible traffic on the alternative free route across the Bay. In an earlier blog post, I wrote a bit about why Northwest Florida's Garcon Point Bridge is in trouble:
In the Pensacola area,the Garcon Point Bridge is losing money. It's a toll bridge, but people can avoid the tolls by taking another route. The traffic volume is too low to pay for the bridge. The owners have asked to raise the toll in the past, but then more people would take the alternate route. The toll is already high, and there's even an anti-toll Facebook page. It's a no-win situation.
That seems like a possible scenario for the much larger project that Alabama is working on. The Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project is estimated to cost around $2.1 billion, and without the tolls, the bridge this area so desperately needs cannot be built. But if local commuters aren't willing to pay the toll, it might be a really nice bridge without enough usage to pay for it either. Meanwhile, we'd be fighting gridlock in Downtown Mobile at the approaches to the Bankhead Tunnel. We'd find people trying to avoid our great Causeway restaurants, because the traffic is just too much to bear.
A Drive Across the New Mobile River Bridge
But while the most discussion has focused on the price of the tolls, I think there are other questions that are at least as important.
1. ALDOT has given a lot of thought to the issue of toll avoidance. But they haven't publicly discussed the possibility of tolling both routes across Mobile Bay -- both the Causeway and the Bayway. Is there some reason why this isn't being considered? If both routes are tolled, then you wouldn't make a mess of the Causeway and Bankhead Tunnel; and by extension, Downtown Mobile during rush hour. And with everyone paying the toll -- not just Bridge and Bayway users -- the toll could be a lot less costly. No one likes to pay a toll, but they really don't like to pay a big toll while others are paying nothing.
2. The technology exists to charge people for going part way across the Bay or all the way, or not charge them at all. There are some great seafood restaurants along the Causeway. The Five Rivers Delta Resource Center is there, too. And plenty of people like to fish out there, as well. Why not simply charge a toll only to vehicles that complete the trip across Mobile Bay? Because if you're only going halfway and then coming back, you haven't really gone anywhere.
3. ALDOT has spoken about possible tolls in the $3-$6 range. But is that a constant price they simply haven't decided on yet, or would ALDOT dynamically adjust the price in real time for traffic volume and time of day? In other words, could the toll be used to not only pay for this massive project, but to help balance out traffic flows throughout the day? This could go a long way toward keeping the bridge from reaching capacity too quickly.
4. Commuters who carpool deserve a break. There is something called "induced demand," and the easiest way to explain it is with a line from Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come." In the case of road infrastructure, new roads bring about new commuters to use those roads. Often, a new road will be filled up in short order and become just as congested as the road it replaced. Same problem, a lot more traffic. The Eastern Shore's rapid growth makes this an especially serious concern. We need mechanisms in place that reduce traffic volumes and keep the new Mobile River Bridge and Bayway from becoming hopelessly congested (no, not a $6 toll). Carpool lanes can help, especially if being in a carpool comes with a price break on the toll. That will encourage more people to drive to work together, to save money as a group, and to share the costs.
There are other concerns, of course. Should daily commuters really only get a 15% price break? Paying tolls every day can create real hardship for families, and make for some tough choices. Another question: will we be able to use our Florida SunPass transponder on the bridge, if we already have one? How about the E-Z Pass transponder that's popular in the Northeast? The law says that these must all be interoperable with each other, but the law has never been enforced. We certainly should be able to use the same transponder when crossing Mobile Bay as when we cross the bridge to Pensacola Beach, right?
Following the second public meeting, NBC-15 was asking if ALDOT has become entrenched in its plans and has closed the book on other solutions. I hope not. I hope ALDOT is still listening to the public and will come away with a better path forward, based on the input they receive.If you were unable to participate in either of the public forums, you can still comment on the project at the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway website, or send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We understand that the bridge does not get built without a toll. But this is our opportunity to get the toll built to our specifications.