Click on the image above to see the NBC-15 report.
The end of our long wait is in sight. The new Mobile River Bridge is set to begin construction as early as next year and be completed by 2024. And the critics said we'd never see it in our lifetime.... (sarcasm font).
With a project cost approaching $2 billion, it was always likely that our new bridge would also be a toll bridge. The actual toll hasn't been set, and probably won't be for some time; but ALDOT spokeperson Allison Gregg tells NBC-15 the tolls will be in effect from I-10 at Virginia Street all the way to the Eastern Shore.
Want to avoid the toll? NBC-15's Muriel Bailey says you can take the Bankhead Tunnel and the Causeway. And that brings us to a significant problem. People don't like to pay tolls, and many will simply opt out... by taking the Causeway.
I can see some potentially big issues with gridlock on the streets of Downtown Mobile. Or a clogged Bankhead Tunnel. And a Causeway that's altogether too congested. What if someone is just going downtown? What if they just want to visit the Original Oyster House on the Causeway? We won't solve the congestion problem if only one option to the Eastern Shore is tolled, and not the other. What we'll do instead, is ease congestion on I-10 and increase congestion on the Causeway.
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.
My worry is that a similar problem will happen again -- this time in Mobile. Toll bridge authorities would have a choice -- a toll that generates traffic but isn't enough to pay for the bridge, or a toll that's high and sends people into toll avoidance mode. They avoid the toll and clog up the Bankhead Tunnel and Causeway. The only way to solve this is if there are no alternate routes. That would require no tolls at all, or tolling on both the Causeway and Bayway -- neither of which are being considered.
UPDATE: It gets worse. ALDOT is considering charging the full toll for people who cross all the way, but only half the price for anyone who gets on the interstate from the Bayway. So that adds another layer of toll avoidance. Get off the interstate and save half.
And while I know it would be an unpopular viewpoint, I think tolling both routes should be considered.
Here's how I would do it. We already know that the new bridge won't use toll booths. You will either get a transponder (SunPass, please) or the toll "station" will read your plate as you pass through. My idea would be to have a toll "station" on both sides of Mobile Bay -- one that you'd pass through no matter which way you cross. No toll would be charged until you pass through the toll station on the other side. Then, if you're just getting dinner at a Causeway restaurant and going back the same way you came in... no toll. But this plan would take any consideration about tolls out of the equation when deciding what route to take. And that would help keep traffic volumes manageable on both the Bayway and the Causeway. Tolls could be kept reasonable for all, without raising prices to recoup lost revenue (from toll avoiders). Nor would you have a bridge authority that can't service its debt.
Admittedly, I'm coming from the point of view of just wanting to go to Downtown Mobile without getting stuck in traffic. In other words, it's a toll I won't usually be paying anyway. People who commute in both directions might see things differently. But it's a discussion worth having, before we have gridlock.