It’s an early-summer evening in Mobile, Ala. as tens of thousands of commuters wind their way across Interstate 10 traversing downtown and into Baldwin County, on the east side of Mobile Bay. It’s a daily scene where traffic has come to a crawl through the George Wallace Tunnel that descends beneath the Mobile River.
When built nearly half a century ago, the tunnels were meant to accommodate about 36,000 vehicles a day. On summer afternoons, that number can triple to more than 100,000 and traffic can come to a complete standstill, for hours at a time.
The Mobile, Ala., tunnel — a routine summer bottleneck for drivers bound for Baldwin County and Florida’s beaches — could be avoided altogether under long-term plans to build a bridge over the Mobile River and widen Interstate 10 over Mobile Bay. The proposal calls for a six-lane, 215-foot-high bridge across the Mobile River and for widening the existing bay bridge from four to eight lanes.
The George C. Wallace Tunnel, actually a pair of two tunnels, opened in 1973 during the administration of Gov. George Wallace. When the tunnels were built during construction of the federal interstate system, they opened alongside the Bankhead Tunnel, which was built 32 years earlier in 1941. In the last few decades, increased traffic volume along I-10 has caused heavy congestion and longer travel times, particularly thanks to drivers travelling to the beaches in Pensacola and along the Gulf Coast.
Alabama Congressman Bradley Byrne says he’s confident the $850 million Gulf Coast mega-project is on track to begin construction in 2017.
Alabama Congressman Bradley Byrne says he’s confident the $850 million Gulf Coast mega-project is on track to begin construction in 2017, and says he has the full support of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to do just that. Byrne hosted Foxx in the Port City earlier this year so he could hear directly from local officials and see the need for the project firsthand.
“We’re working to expedite the design phase and the environmental impact statement,” said Byrne. “My office remains in constant contact with the Dept. of Transportation about the project to work towards a 2017 start date.”
Congressman Byrne has said he’s also met with Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and front runner for the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Byrne said that in discussions with Ryan, he has expressed his concerns for Congress to pass a long-term highway bill, which is required to fund the bridge.
The Senate passed a long-term highway bill earlier this year, and while it authorized highway programs for six years, it only included funding for three years. Chairman Ryan and Rep. Bill Shuster, Transportation Committee Chairman, are continuing to work on the House’s version of a long-term bill. In speaking with The Pulse, Congressman Byrne has affirmed that he will not vote for another short-term highway bill.
The bridge is among the largest public infrastructure projects in the history of the Gulf Coast and the second highest clearance bridge in the United States.
The bridge is among the largest public infrastructure projects in the history of the Gulf Coast and the second highest clearance interstate bridge in the United States. At 215 feet high, the bridge will be tall enough to allow massive ships to sail beneath it, including Carnival Cruise Line’s Fantasy cruise ship, which is scheduled to arrive and begin cruises out of the Mobile cruise terminal next year.
“The 215-foot height was to protect for future cruise business,” Jimmy Lyons, CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority told the Mobile Press-Register earlier this year. “The cruise ships are the ones that get up there as far as the ships are concerned.”
In most recent estimates by the Alabama Department of Transportation, the cost of the project would overwhelmingly be paid for by the federal government, paying 80 percent of the projected $850 million price tag for the bridge. Alabama would cover the remaining 20 percent, estimated at $170 million. That figure will likely change as the design of the bridge is finalized.
Currently, the bridge is still in the preliminary design phase and officials are continuing the process of measuring the environmental impacts of the project. That phase is scheduled to wrap up late next year, when the Federal Highway Administration is scheduled to give final approval for the bridge.
In addition to the six-lanes proposed for the bridge, the Alabama Department of Transportation is pushing to including bicycle and pedestrian crossings across the Mobile River. Officials have said included design of a protected crossing will be determined in 2016. Congressman Byrne stated he is leaving that decision up to ALDOT and the engineering firm, Thompson Engineering. “I’m certainly open to those ideas, but I believe they should be made by engineers, not elected officials,” said Byrne.
With construction expected to begin in 2017, the bridge and bayway widening is estimated to take six to eight years to complete, finishing in 2023-2025.
Along with the Mobile River Bridge, several other major public infrastructure projects along the Gulf Coast are proposed to be built within the next decade. The new Pensacola Bay Bridge is set to begin construction as early as 2016, at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars. The three-mile crossing will provide expanded capacity for Pensacola Bay area commuters, replacing the four-lane bridge with a six-lane crossing. As The Pulse reported last month, in Okaloosa County a proposal to build a new pair of bridges to replace the half-century old Brooks Bridge is being considered, spanning Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island along highway 98. No cost has been proposed for that project.