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Bridging the divide or the snarl ahead?
By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
A rising storm over the location of a proposed I-10 bridge spanning Mobile River threatens to rival the public outcry that roiled the community in the mid-80’s when an elevated expressway along the downtown waterfront was debated and ultimately defeated.
A bottleneck at the Wallace Tunnel on I-10 – arguably its worst kink at any point across the breadth of the country and perhaps related to a poorly designed eastbound entrance at Water Street -- has long troubled federal and state highway officials, not to mention stalled motorists, accident victims, auto insurance interests and state troopers.
As many as 14 alternate bridge routes designed to unravel the kink and relieve traffic congestion were drafted. The number was whittled in recent weeks to just three, none of which feature a northern route favored by preservationists and waterfront maritime interests.
Twenty years ago the I-210 opponents prevailed over transportation engineers. And today, I-165 from I-65 in Prichard finally drops down to ground level at Water St. in downtown Mobile.
The debate is not entirely over.
The anti-raised expressway contingent assures that nothing in the way of downtown redevelopment would be in place had the ‘barrier’ been built, fomenting the agents of decay all along downtown Mobile’s eastern front.
The traffic engineers would note that funneling interstate traffic into local traffic at ground level on Water Street does, just as they said 20 years ago, defeat the very idea of a limited access interstate designed to move non-local traffic rapidly through an area.
Are the issues now with the $700 million-$1 billion I-10 bridge similar to those that pitted the road pro’s against the protesters over I-210? Has time rendered a verdict in the I-210 scrap? Is 2006 a new day and the proposed I-10 bridge a fresh and distinct matter, unfettered by controversies of yesteryear?
MBT sought the views of a number of interested parties, although few of the transportation experts responded. Speaking to the Press-Register, Alabama Department of Transportation engineer Ronnie Poiroux said the new bridge could be Mobile's version of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. His department would continue conducting an environmental impact study of the three proposed routes, according to Poiroux. The study should be finished in the spring or early summer of 2007, he added.
"I'm not avoiding this issue, but I don't think I know enough about the remaining alternative routes to respond as to which is best. Each has problems. I have two main concerns: (1) disruption to existing businesses on or near the waterfront and (2) whether the cost of this project will effectively crowd out other much needed road projects in Baldwin County, particularly our hurricane evacuation route additions in the four-laning of State Highway 181, the interchange at County Road 13 and I-10, four-laning U.S. Highway 31 from Spanish Fort to Highway 181 and from there to Alabama Highway 59 in Stapleton, and taking the Foley Beach Express north to I-10 and then I-65."
-- Bradley Byrne, attorney, Baldwin County state senator
"The proposed bridge will have pylons about 500 feet high, and a roadbed at least 200 feet high. Such a large structure will, through its shape and size, literally overshadow the historic areas of Mobile if built at locations A, B, or C. There will be significant adverse economic impacts to our city through changed access and impact on the cruise and maritime industries.
There are many other problems too numerous to address here, but the "cost" which ALDOT lists for the various locations is merely the price tag for the construction -- they ignore the cost to Mobile, financially and historically.
From the 14 routes presented in those "public participation" meetings, I favor routes 5 or 6, which would utilize an existing under-utilized highway; there has been an objection to this from ALDOT partly due to having to widen I-65 -- however, it's extremely likely it will have to be widened anyway. If this route cannot be agreed upon, then route 14 is the only other bridge route which is acceptable -- and then it will need a roadbed at least 220 feet high.
Ultimately, we may be back to new tunnels.
Our transportation dollars should be spent in such a way as to support a viable long-range plan for our city and area. In other words, the citizens of Mobile, not outsiders, should direct the process. The proposed locations for the bridge have been selected in a top-down manner and in disregard for local opinion. The "public participation" meetings were a farce at best; there was no public discussion, merely opportunity for private comment. I wonder if the written comments were ever read.
At the Renaissance Committee of HMPS, we intend to conduct at least one public hearing on this matter -- with opportunity for public comment in front of God and everybody. If Governor (Bob) Riley can come spend an hour and a half listening to public comment on the proposed LNG terminal, then ALDOT can spare at least that much time; perhaps the governor can also.
As was made clear in the US 98 matter, road building is by far the primary concern to ALDOT. Our quality of life belongs to us to defend."
"The route must contribute to Mobile’s extraordinary transportation infrastructure, not cripple it. All adjacent - the State Docks, Container Terminal, intermodal yard and Brookley - create Mobile’s greatest competitive advantage for economic development. The connection to I-10 west of the bridge must allow easy exit to and entrance from Broad Street or it severs a primary artery between I-10 and most of Mobile’s unique transportation facilities."
-- Marc P. Pelham, Mobile Airport Authority
"I’m not sure of all alternates but anywhere form the cruise terminal north to the turning basin is an economic killer. There is too much security and other issues with the bridge north of the cruise terminal. More costly, but I would rather see the bridge north of Cochran Bridge or use the Cochran Bridge with a perimeter highway around north Mobile that spurs economic development and takes traffic away from downtown. Downtown growth or economic health will not be dependent on people randomly getting off of the interstate for downtown.
Just one personal opinion."
-- MNO'C, construction executive
"All of the options negatively impact the cruise terminal to some degree. The least intrusive is the southernmost one.The other two actually take part of our site for the support structure and put us out of business. We can live with the third option if the terminal ingress/egress routes are kept open on cruise days during construction. The bridge height must be 220 feet at its highest roadway elevation in order to accommodate the larger and newer ships which will be passing under it in order to dock. Their air draft is 218 feet. Our second ship could be one of these and I expect to see us get another vessel in the near future. This industry is a multi-million dollar one that benefits the entire state because our drive market is a wide regional one that extends into the upper Midwest. We identify every car tag by state that parks in our garage so we can prove our market.
Regarding ALDOT and the feds, I think the governor and our Alabama congressman and senators need to enter the debate aggressively. The I-10 corridor is bigger than all of us locally."
-- Al St. Clair, Mobile Alabama Cruise Terminal
"I think the least desirable route would be the one directly over the cruise terminal and new Maritime Center. Millions have been spent to redevelopment the waterfront, and we shouldn't throw that investment away.
The City's original redevelopment consultant, who was instrumental in redeveloping Baltimore's waterfront, told Mayor (Mike) Dow that Mobile should give up on its plans for the waterfront altogether if the bridge went over it. This guy had no axe to grind. He makes his living advising cities on these type issues.
Unfortunately, ALDOT does not appear to be listening to the people of Mobile."
-- Palmer Hamilton, attorney/preservationist
"Of the three routes under consideration, the one just south of the cruise terminal seems to have the least impact. I hope that the project can move forward soon as it is desperately needed."
-- Jimmy Lyons, director/CEO, Alabama State Port Authority
"The worst route for the bayway bridge is the northmost route presently under consideration. I have to admit that I am partial in that this route wipes out my family's business, a small shipyard, which started operation in 1895 and has been run continuously by my family for 111 years. No other route that I know of destroys a whole business, though all routes under consideration inconvenience businesses and neighborhoods. That being said, the northmost route is most damaging to the City of Mobile, because it towers over our central business and historic district.
Alabama Department of Transportation and Volkert Engineering dismiss the negative impact of this by comparing Mobile's bridge to the one in Charleston, but the one in Charleston is over 2 miles from the central business and historic districts. A bridge taking the northmost route being considered would go over the new Maritime Museum, the cruise ship terminal, the new condominium development, just miss Fort Conde, and a host of other Mobile landmarks.
I recently visited Charleston and can attest to how large of a structure this bridge would impose over the City of Mobile. The bulk and imposing size this close into the city would dwarf and make insignificant any other aspect of the city, including the new RSA tower.
All three of the routes being considered are over the harbor, which will impose height restrictions and create a security risk in case it becomes a terrorist target. All three routes (though to a lesser degree the southern route being considered) will negatively impact the "Down the Bay" neighborhood with excessive stormwater runoff, traffic routing, and the blight of the bridge structures through and beside this area.
ALDOT and Volkert Engineering continue to ignore these negative impacts and push a bridge which they consider to have the most direct route, failing to consider that a detour of several miles is in order when congested conditions exist for the Wallace tunnel.
The best route is the route that includes the benefits of a Northern Bypass (a project that is warranted by present needs) and a bridge that goes north of the Mobile Harbor and alongside the Cochrane Bridge. This route has been advocated by many knowledgeable civic groups and would not only solve the need for an alternate to the Wallace Tunnel, but also provide a way to expedite traffic through the Western and Northern areas of the city. In addition, it would prepare the city for a link with a new interstate planned to approach to the Northeast of the city. This bridge would be less of a terrorist threat and not impede the Mobile Harbor. The Mayor of Prichard has already stated the he would welcome this route to and through his city."
-- Bill Harrison, Harrison Brothers Dry Dock and Repair Yard
"All three of the proposed routes now on the table just cannot work from my perspective. They threaten the National Historic Landmark status of the Old Southern Market and Government Street Presbyterian Church, they will take business away from the USS ALABAMA, which is the linchpin of our tourism industry, they all will adversely affect the cruise industry that the city worked so hard to recruit, they will make it more expedient to get through town too quickly to help local businesses survive. Those are just a few points."
-- Marilyn Culpepper, Oakleigh House
"(I prefer) Route A because it disturbs the least amount of industrial space with the piers and because it is far enough north so as to get the elevation required (so that) the ramps won't block truck traffic entering and exiting the new Choctaw Point terminal. The other two choices do not accomplish this. All of the estimated costs are "materially equal."
-- Tommy Tyrrell, construction management
"The Cochran Bridge route is by far the best from a maritime point of view."
-- Walter Meigs, Atlantic Marine
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. There are so many reasons, I am afraid I will miss some but here goes:
Preferred Route, Cochrane Bridge, because:
1. It would not limit access to the Port of Mobile;
2. It would not tower over the Mobile Landing cruise port and limit the size of cruise ships;
3. It would not tower over the new Maritime Museum;
4. It would not be a detriment to the proposed condos and retail development;
5. It would not disturb or interfere with some historic settlements;
6. It would not injure Bender, Austal and Atlantic Marine in numerous ways;
7. If properly designed, it would fulfill the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission plan of having a regional by-pass that would come off I-10 around Dawes area, swing by the airport, relieving Airport Blvd traffic, and then tie-in to I-65/I65 to Cochrane Bridge;
8. It would be financially beneficial to the city of Prichard bringing traffic through the city;
9. It would open up the entire Mobile trade area to economic development;
10. Cochrane Bridge could be brought up to "freeway" status and be used as the connecting link on the system thereby reducing costs.
The reason advanced by ALDOT for not using this preferred route are, in no particular order:
1. "We have a study that not enough people would use it";
2. It goes through Africatown
3. It would cost too much money.
My response is:
1. The study they cite was flawed because it was based on existing infrastructure with no increase in lanes on I-65 which would be required plus the fact that you can always MAKE trucks take this "express by-pass;"
2. They envision on and off ramps at west side of the river which are not required
3. When did the Government ever not do something because it costs too much money. We're talking about the future of this city.
Least Desirable -- anything south of the tunnel, the further south the worse the scenario. The reasons are a mirror image of "pros."
1. It would limit access to the Port of Mobile. The huge rig sitting there right now would not have been able to go under the bridge.
2. Cruise ships are getting higher all the time. It would be impossible and certainly not feasible financially to raise the bridge high enough for the newer cruise ships to dock here. Tampa is already finding that their bridge is going to be restrictive to cruise development.
3. It would be a shame to build a new maritime museum and then have it dwarfed by the bridge.
4. Who wants to live in an expensive condo with a view of a bridge?
5. Not disturbing the historic settlements would be a plus.
6. Any bridge south of the Tunnels would injure Austal, Bender and Atlantic Marine. The farther south you go the more the damage. If you go far enough, it might well be enough of a disruption to cause Bender to move his shipyard. The damage would be irreparable.
7. The bridge south of the tunnels would strangle Mobile's economic growth. We are a port city and anything that detracts from that seriously damages our future.
No sane person can make a credible case for locating the bridge south of the tunnels other than cost and I think they are playing fast and loose with that angle as well, not comparing "apples" to "apples" in the cost estimates or using Cochrane Bridge with improvements.
You may use my name, address, age, height, weight and anything else except my social security number."
-- Bill Yeager, Timbes & Yeager (interviewed about three weeks before his death from injuries suffered when he was struck by an automobile.)
"Least desirable: All southern routes.
(There is a) terrible track record of bridges in other cities where everything, business and residential, within the "shadow" of the bridge is poorly effected, i.e. New Orleans.
Mobile is only recently recovering from Urban Renewal of the '60's. It does not need another "body blow" to its downtown business community.
Downtown viability is dependent on a critical mass of residents. A visible bridge and the dirt, noise, and pollution that comes with it will deter people from continuing to move downtown, thus driving down home sales and prices and leading to an end of both commercial and residential investment from local and outside investors
(It) impinges on the historic character of the city. National studies show that 60 percent of all tourism dollars are driven by historic destinations. If Mobile loses its downtown residents, all of which are in Historic Districts, it loses its tourism, its fledgling entertainment district and its only
multi-cultural and multi-racial neighborhoods.
(It) directly overshadows the cruise terminal and businesses dependent on the cruise industry, thus effecting tax revenues.
(It) damages the viability of many Causeway businesses, including Battleship Park
(It) damages maritime business nearby -- again, less tax revenues.
Security would be a nightmare for contiguous cruise terminal/bridge/railroad, especially in light of the tremendous amount of flammable gases that are shipped daily through Mobile, both on the highway and by rail.
Most desirable route: Cochrane Bridge
(The) bridge is in existence and can be retro fitted.
(The) route does not effect historic districts, maritime interests, cruise ships or Causeway.
(It) does not cross over nor divide a city.
(The) City of Prichard wants this route as it will stimulate business, growth and taxes. Transportation grants from the federal government will help establish local public projects.
(The) cost overall is less.
The big drawback of using the Cochrane Bridge is that the engineering firms and ALDOT do not get to erect a huge new edifice a testing to their ability!"
-- Buffy Donlon, downtown Mobile business interests
"I think think the bigger issue or question would be, when are we going to quit designing or building cities around automobiles instead of building them around people. I think we should block off the Water street exit ramp from I-10 eastbound and from the Africatown Bridge exit westbound. This would then give you an area that was once Water street where you could then rip out the asphalt and develop into greenscapes, walking paths, retail, residential living, etc. etc. tied to the river, sort of like Baltimore, Pittsburgh or Charleston.
As for the proposed new Mobile river bridge, I could care less that a few people have to wait a few minutes in traffic on a Friday afternoon on a holiday weekend to get through the Wallace Tunnel. So what? Tell it to someone who sits in traffic for hours in Atlanta or Phoenix.
There should be one more choice added to the list of Mobile river bridge locations: "None of the Above."
Remember, these are the same brilliant people that gave us Airport Blvd., speed bumps, and west Mobile neighborhoods with brick walls that only have one entry or exit street.
P.S. Get rid of ... the City of Mobile Urban Development Department, Traffic Engineering Department, Right of Way Department and give me and other selected individuals a billion dollars, and we will turn this damn place into Charleston in five years.
-- AC, downtown investor
“I have heard many different opinions on the bridge including where it should go. It is important that all interested persons understand that this decision will be and rightly should be made by the Alabama Department of Transportation and its engineers and experts in conjunction with the people and leaders of the Mobile Bay area. Much care and much discussion should be given to this important decision.”
-- Jeff Sessions, U.S. Senator