Latest Mobile River Bridge and Bayway plan raises a lot of questions
Photo 165986823 © George Dodd |


Latest Mobile River Bridge and Bayway plan raises a lot of questions

By rejecting the previous public-private partnership proposal, the Alabama Department of Transportation has placed a heavy burden on itself.

After the Alabama Department of Transportation’s initial plan to rebuild the I-10 Bayway connecting Mobile and Daphne and add a new bridge to cross the Mobile River was rejected in 2019, the state has adopted a new approach previously approved by the metropolitan planning organizations in Mobile and Baldwin counties. Under the new plan, a contractor would build the new Mobile River Bridge and the new Bayway but instead of the $6 toll that had been part of the rejected public-private partnership, the new plan would cap tolls at a much-lower $2.50.  

Land Line reported on the framework of the latest plan:

The Alabama Department of Transportation is throwing its support behind a plan for the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project that does not include a truck-only toll. In December, the Eastern Shore and Mobile Metropolitan Planning Organizations signed off on a framework for the project that has been in limbo for several years.

The agreed-upon Mobile River Bridge project between the two planning organizations includes the following stipulations:Project should be completed in about five years once construction begins.

Free, no toll options for passenger vehicles. The Wallace Tunnel should be toll-free as well as the Bankhead Tunnel, Africatown Bridge, and causeway. No tolls on existing infrastructure.

Significant federal and state funding. The metropolitan planning organizations anticipate at least $250 million from the state.

Maximum toll of $2.50 or less on all passenger vehicles. Tolls for 18-wheeler-type trucks are expected to be $15 to $18.

“We anticipate a plan based on financial data and traffic counts to fund all new construction using at least $250 million in state funding, $125 million in federal funding and a toll that shall not exceed $2.50 for passenger vehicles that choose to use the new infrastructure,” Alabama Transportation Director John Cooper states in the letter. “We will continue to work with the MPOs on flat-rate tolling for frequent business and personal travel across the Bayway.”

Discussions on toll amounts for trucks of various sizes are ongoing. Additionally, there will be no public-private partnership. Tolls will end once the state pays off the debt.

But the biggest change in the new framework concerns risk transfer. The private consortium that would have operated and maintained the I-10 Bayway and Mobile River bridge in the rejected public-private partnership (P3) would have taken on the revenue risk. In exchange for being granted the opportunity to collect toll revenue, the private consortium would have assumed the financial risk associated with unanticipated shortfalls in future toll revenue. Under the new framework, the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT), and thus Alabama’s taxpayers, would be taking the revenue risk as well as the risk of operating and maintaining the toll roads, roles often undertaken by the private partner in tolling P3s.

The new framework and ALDOT’s expanded role raise several questions: Will ALDOT be able to collect and generate enough toll revenue for the project to work financially, having never before operated an electronic toll road? The P3 concessionaire with extensive experience operating toll roads and managing costs had planned on charging a $6 toll, more than twice the proposed rate. Is ALDOT capable of delivering mostly similar project components for less than half what experienced toll road operators projected or is it planning to operate at a financial loss? If so, where would the money to cover the likely shortfalls come from?

It remains unclear if drivers using the new Mobile River Bridge and the rebuilt Bayway would pay the same toll as those using only the Bayway. Instead of charging one toll for all drivers, it would make more financial sense to toll the Mobile River Bridge separately. Unlike the Bayway, the bridge is a new addition, an amenity that would allow drivers to avoid using tunnels. 

The Bayway certainly needs rebuilding, but if the new highway isn’t widened and improved—the metropolitan planning organizations’ declaration that the new Bayway is “built to current safety and longevity standards” leaves a lot of leeway on the issue—ALDOT might find renewed opposition to tolling from local residents, who defeated the previously proposed public-private partnership three years ago. 

Since the proposed Mobile River Bridge is six total lanes, the Bayway needs to have at least six, but will it have eight lanes like the previously rejected P3 Bayway? Drivers may not be eager to pay a new toll for a section of Interstate that is nearly identical to the old section, and a wider (in terms of lanes) bridge merging into the Bayway would potentially create its own traffic congestion problems while not doing much to solve existing ones—especially if there’s no additional toll for the Mobile River Bridge. 

Tolling the new Mobile River Bridge separately from the Bayway would allow ALDOT to charge less for the Bayway. Since the state is reportedly putting in as much as $250 million and ALDOT is taking on the revenue risk, at the very least, an additional toll source would help minimize the project’s risk exposure to taxpayers.

By rejecting the previous public-private partnership proposal, ALDOT has placed a heavy burden on itself by having to set and collect tolls without previous experience doing either, and with a toll cap of less than half of what was needed for experienced toll operators for the rejected P3. Spreading the tolling risk to the Mobile River Bridge in addition to the Bayway would help ALDOT meet its revenue goals. It would also put less pressure on the Bayway for toll revenues while putting more pressure on the project component that is both new and provides a travel amenity (no tunnels) previously not available without a lengthy detour. 

Tolling existing Interstate routes, even if completely rebuilt, can sometimes frustrate drivers who are already paying fuel taxes that should be going to maintain and repair the highways being tolled and view the tolls as double taxation. Users should pay the costs of operating and maintaining the infrastructure they use. In this case, a separate toll for the Mobile River Bridge would help take some of the load off the Bayway and frustrated motorists who want the Bayway tolls to be as low as possible. To better promote the interests of Alabama’s motorists and taxpayers, ALDOT should consider these revisions.