The Alabama Department of Transportation wants to sell the public on a $90 monthly pass for frequent users of the new Mobile River Bridge and Bayway. John Sharp of al.com says the monthly pre-paid pass would be available to all "Class 1" vehicles, basically cars, pickups, and the like. For regular commuters across the Bay, that's about $2.14 per trip. The estimated cost is based on an average work month of 21 weekdays, and a trip each direction. ALDOT has also proposed a standard toll of $6 each way, a price that would be paid by out-of-state residents and by locals who infrequently cross the Bay. Frequent users who don't buy a pass would receive a fifteen percent discount ($5.10). It takes just four trips across the Bay each month to be a "frequent user" and get the discount. To get a discount or use a pass, users would be required to purchase a transponder. Florida's SunPass is a good example, and one that people who use the Mid-Bay Bridge (Destin), the Bob Sikes Bridge (Pensacola Beach), or the Garcon Point Bridge (Milton) may already have.
The monthly pass plan is unlikely to keep the 27,000-strong "Block the Bayway Toll" Facebook group happy, because they are opposed to any toll. But the reality is that this is a $2.1 billion project, and the current gridlock we frequently face has an economic cost to our region. We have a dynamic port, an airport with a big runway, good rail connections, and two interstates serving the city. The placement of all these assets practically next to each other is a unique advantage to Mobile, but the I-10 bottleneck is only getting worse and doing damage to that competitive advantage. Add in long waits to cross the Bay on busy weekends, and something has to be done.
ALDOT has made it clear that this project doesn't happen without the toll. And to their credit, they've addressed the BIG complaint that locals were being asked to bear far too much of the cost. Regular users will now get a significant discount, and if you carpool, you can also pool costs and save even more. And it will still be easy to avoid the toll altogether by taking the Causeway, and using either the Bankhead Tunnel or the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge.
Users of the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway can also cut their cost by using only a portion of the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway. For example, you could skip the Bankhead Tunnel and instead go through the tolled Wallace Tunnel; then exit I-10 at Midbay. That would be a $3.75 toll, so you'd still be better off getting the monthly pass -- unless you use this option only when the Bankhead Tunnel is clogged up. There are enough options that locals will get familiar with the traffic patterns quickly and find ways to save; that is, if they choose not to go with the monthly pass.
Finally, ALDOT tried to clear up some misinformation. No, they will not start tolling the Wallace Tunnel as soon as construction begins. There will not be a toll until the project is completed. Since it will take several years to get all this done, that represents several years' worth of savings to commuters. And that's typical with these types of projects. In Washington State, for example, users generally get a free grace period with a new project before tolls start -- even after the project is complete.
The project includes a Bayway that meets federal regulations of being elevated higher than the 100-year storm surge in a hurricane. We lost the Pensacola Bay Bridge during Ivan and the Twin Span (outside New Orleans) during Katrina. The right storm could take out the Bayway, and it needs to be elevated before that happens.
There's still room for more good ideas. I've already mentioned SunPass and think it would be a great option for this project, since it's already in use on the Central Gulf Coast (in Florida). I've stressed the need to add a carpool lane and offer discounts to locals who travel to work with a friend. And I remain concerned that the approaches to the Bankhead Tunnel will become hopelessly clogged up as people try to avoid paying a toll altogether. But on the latter point, at least, a $2 toll to avoid that might be just low enough to make people skip waiting in traffic. And our local governments could use the toll as an opportunity to introduce some limited regional express buses into Downtown Mobile and the University of South Alabama campus. People would pay a bus fare, but not an additional toll.
In an earlier blog post, I stressed the importance of getting this project built to our specifications. ALDOT has shown they are listening, so let's keep talking about what's important to us.