The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) has laid out its toll proposal for the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project. The centerpiece of that proposal is a $90 prepaid monthly pass. Commuters would use a transponder linked to their online account, allowing them to pay a single monthly fee for unlimited trips across Mobile Bay. For regular weekday commuters, that will amount to about $2.14 per trip, which compares favorably to a standard proposed toll of $6 per trip.
The public reaction to the latest toll proposal has again been a case of sticker shock. In a toxic political climate where the left and right seem to be at each other's throats, opposition to tolls (and in many cases, the new bridge itself) has seemingly united people on both sides of the aisle.
Just maybe not on both sides of Mobile Bay....
It's been a long time since anyone has paid a toll to cross the Bay, but for much of the 20th century, tolls were a way of life. When the Bankhead Tunnel opened on February 20, 1941, the toll was set at 25 cents. In today's dollars, that's $4.36 to drive through the Bankhead Tunnel. And while this seems quite odd today, station wagons actually had to pay a bit more. If you were driving through the Bankhead Tunnel in a station wagon, you paid 35 cents, or $6.10 in today's dollars. The Bankhead Tunnel was built without using local tax revenue, and was instead paid for with a combination of federal funding and tolls. A 1963 Press-Register article explains how the tolls continued long after they'd paid for the tunnel. New revenue bonds stretched the tolls into the future, but they also funded street paving projects in the City of Mobile. Tolls were finally lifted in the Bankhead Tunnel in 1973, when the Wallace Tunnel opened -- and when a 25 cent toll would represent $1.44 in today's dollars.
Photo: Eastern Entrance to the Bankhead Tunnel, with Toll Booths (Courtesy of The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of South Alabama)
Despite the 25-cent toll, the Bankhead Tunnel was probably a relief to local residents. Because until 1937, tolls had been a lot more expensive.
Until 1927, the only way to cross Mobile Bay was by ferry. Traveling by boat is really quite pleasant, but if you ever want to make the price for a toll bridge seem entirely reasonable, check out what you'll pay on a ferry. The ferry cost $3.10 for a passenger car and an additional 40 cents per occupant. For a car and driver to cross Mobile Bay, that was $3.50. Again, this is 1927!! That was a whopping $51.52 when compared to today's dollars. According to al.com, the price could go as high as $6. Do we even want to know how much that is today?
Crossing Mobile Bay became a lot more affordable once the Causeway and Cochrane Bridge opened that same year. The private company that owned the crossing charged passenger cars one dollar ($14.72 in today's dollars), plus 10 cents for each additional passenger. Tom McGehee at Mobile Bay Monthly says that the additional charge per passenger convinced more than a few people to hide in the trunk of their cars before riding across the Bay. So yes, people have been finding ways to avoid tolls seemingly as long as tolls have existed.
Once the state took over the Causeway and Cochrane Bridge a decade later, the toll was dropped altogether. People finally had a free route across Mobile Bay, and have since 1937. That brings us back to the Bankhead Tunnel. While the tunnel cost a quarter, it also saved people the time and hassle of driving up and around on the Cochrane Bridge. From 1941 until the Wallace Tunnel opened in 1973, drivers had a choice when driving into Downtown Mobile from Baldwin County: a quick one minute drive through the Bankhead Tunnel, or a 7-1/2 mile detour across the Cochrane Bridge. Put in financial terms: take the Bankhead Tunnel for a quarter, or the Cochrane Bridge for free.
That's largely our choice if and when the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway is finally completed, currently expected in 2025. Commuters will then have the option to pay a toll on a new Bayway, or they can take the Causeway at no additional cost. Commuters can choose to pay a toll in the Wallace Tunnel or on the Mobile Bay Bridge, or they can use either the Bankhead Tunnel or the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge for free. If history is any indication, plenty of us will opt for convenience and pay the toll -- at least with that $90 monthly pass.
There's a bit of unfair comparison in this history lesson. Quite simply, not that many people commuted from Baldwin County during those earlier days. Until the Causeway opened in 1927, it was totally impractical to live on the east side of the Bay and commute into Mobile on a daily basis. Most people who worked in the city also lived in Mobile, and thus did not pay a toll to get to work. They did, however, pay a bus fare in many (if not most) cases, since car ownership was not nearly as widespread as it is today.
But I think it can be instructive to know where we've been. I thought the most interesting part of that Press-Register article from 1963 (mentioned earlier) was that it seemed to praise tolls: how they helped pave roads in Mobile, how a tolled Bankhead Tunnel furthered Mobile's economy with a later decision to route I-10 through the city. It's been 46 years since we've paid a toll to cross Mobile Bay, and we probably have at least six years to get used to the idea of paying tolls again. Between now and then, let's have a good discussion and get a final plan that we all can live with.