New Orleanians who travel to the beaches along the Alabama and Florida coasts know it’s a road trip that requires more than just booking a room and remembering to pack the sunscreen. It takes building in extra time to tackle the often maddening traffic at the George Wallace Tunnel and the adjoining twin bridges across Mobile Bay.
No beach vacation can start, and no trip home can be completed, without first enduring this trial.
The four-lane tunnel carries Interstate 10 traffic under the Mobile River and onto what is known as the “Bayway” or “Jubilee Parkway,” a pair of 7.5-mile parallel spans that cross Mobile Bay. But the tunnel and twin spans create a bottleneck in Alabama’s third-most populous city, which is also a gateway to popular sugar-white sands along the coast.
Getting snagged in traffic there has torpedoed the schedule of many a beachgoer, not to mention Mobile-area residents who commute regularly across the waterways.
A remedy is in the works. But it’s expensive and mired in controversy. At least in Alabama.
The proposed $2.1 billion project would build a six-lane bridge across the river and replace the existing I-10 Bayway with a new eight-lane span. But there’s a major sticking point: a proposed toll of up to $6.
New Orleans-area residents heading east would be among those paying tolls for the project, which would be built through a public-private partnership. But some say they wouldn’t mind forking out $12 — $6 each way — if it would mean an easier trip to the beach.
Gary Bourgeois, a Mandeville businessman, once got stuck in a two-hour standstill on the Mobile Bay bridge on his way home from the beach. Now he plans his trips to avoid the busiest traffic hours, often leaving before dawn or in between rush hours on weekdays.
“It can get really bad,” Bourgeois said. “And if there happens to be an accident in the tunnel, you can kiss it goodbye.”
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The multibillion-dollar Mobile River Bridge and Bayway Project, which is being developed under the auspices of the Alabama Department of Transportation and the state’s Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority, would alleviate traffic snarls along the federal highway, its supporters say.
The Wallace Tunnel, which opened in 1973, was built to accommodate 36,000 vehicles a day. Current usage is more than twice that and can exceed 100,000 vehicles during busy holiday periods.
The plan calls for construction of a six-lane, 2.5-mile-long, cable-stayed bridge over the Mobile River. The existing bayway would be replaced by a new 7.5-mile, eight-lane span that would be above the 100-year storm surge level.
To bolster its argument for the project, the state highway department says that from June 1, 2018, to May 31 of this year, there were 131 “congested-related events” during rush hour that created traffic delays of at least 30 minutes. Over the same period, there were 132 crashes during peak travel times that created delays of 75 minutes.
Supporters say that while some federal funds will be used, the scope and cost of the project far exceed the government’s ability to pay for it without the public-private partnership and toll revenue, which would cover the lion’s share of the $2.1 billion price tag.
Under the plan, electronic toll gantries spanning the new section of I-10 would capture license plate images and bills would be mailed to beachgoers like Bourgeois. Everyday users would be able to purchase monthly passes — at an estimated cost of $90 — that would allow unlimited crossings. There would be no toll booths, and vehicles could proceed through the area at normal speeds.
Like Bourgeois, New Orleans-area advertising executive Otto Mehrgut, who makes frequent beach trips, describes the Mobile traffic chokepoint as a huge problem and wouldn’t mind paying a toll to solve the gridlock. With a trip planned to Destin next week, Mehrgut said he is already dreading what he refers to as the Mobile obstacle.
“It seems like there’s never a good time to leave to avoid it,” he said. “It can add 45 minutes to your trip and that cuts into your getaway time, especially if you’re going for the weekend.”
While most lament the traffic problems, opposition to the bridge and bayway project in the Mobile area is fierce.
Alabama state Auditor Jim Zeigler has emerged as the most vocal opponent, saying the tolls would create a severe financial burden on working people and families who cross the river and bay each day. This month, Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth also blasted the plan, saying the toll structure was akin to “extorting” citizens.
Zeigler has created a Facebook page called “Block the Mobile Bayway Toll.” As of Wednesday, the page had over 52,000 followers.
Zeigler said a major objection to the project is handing a section of the federal interstate highway system, which was born in 1956 under the Eisenhower Administration, to a private contractor for 55 years.
“I can imagine that President Dwight Eisenhower is turning over in his grave at the thought of turning over a section of the interstate to a private company,” Zeigler said.
However, supporters of the project, including Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, say that without it, traffic in the area will become unbearable in the not-too-distant future, if it isn’t already.
The project’s timeline calls for a completion date of sometime in 2025.The state is scheduled to select the concessionaire early next year.
Louisianans won’t have a say in the decision. But Mehrgut knows which side he falls on.
“I would not mind paying the toll,” he said. “The time I would save would more than make up for it.”