The Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project had been on life support for awhile. But the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and Governor Kay Ivey finally put the nail in the coffin on Thursday. Following the Eastern Shore MPO's 8-1 vote to remove the project from its long-term Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), the governor released a statement to declare the project dead.
Opponents of a toll bridge claimed victory. But if that's a victory, it's a hollow one at best.
The Mobile River Bridge project came about as the result of many years of traffic back-ups on I-10. It came about due to fears of a future where every commute started to look like a Friday afternoon in summertime. Traffic is already bad, and it's going to get a lot worse. The Wallace Tunnel helped fuel the region's economy, but its restricted capacity now threatens to slow the region's economic growth. We didn't hear a lot of debate about the need for an I-10 bridge, until the toll was introduced.
And we know what happened next.
The public mostly opposed a $6 toll. Even toll proponents were feeling the sticker shock, wondering how the price became so expensive. ALDOT came back with an alternate plan, offering an unlimited pass at $90/month -- or about $2.14 per trip for regular weekday commuters. But by this time, it was already too late. The Block The Bayway Toll Facebook group kept growing, and many local and state politicians seized an opportunity to score political points. "No Tolls" became a popular slogan, but without any solution or compromise attached to it. ALDOT and Governor Kay Ivey showed almost zero willingness to discuss alternatives to a toll. And in fact, she called a meeting of all stakeholders in Montgomery(!) to talk about it further. When local officials begged the governor to move the meeting closer to those affected, she refused. At the time, the governor's spokesperson Gina Maiola told al.com: "This is an interstate road which affects every Alabamian," explaining why the meeting needed to be located closer to the center of the state. If that sounds tone deaf to you, that's because it is.
None of this needed to happen. But politicians have a bad habit of being... well, politicians. And politics is often a losing proposition for the citizens those politicians claim to represent. Governor Kay Ivey has taken her toys and gone home, saying the project is "dead." She also canceled that October meeting to discuss the project. Eastern Shore MPO members did the same with their vote yesterday. They could have voted to hold off until October, to give everyone more time to craft a solution. That what's the Mobile County MPO did, and they deserve praise for their pragmatism.
The death of this project is a loss for our region. You may not notice it, except when you're stuck in traffic or avoiding the other side of Mobile Bay altogether, but this decision comes with a cost. Our Gulf Coast region is home to a major port that's dependent on good transport networks to efficiently move shipments into and out of it. Once traffic becomes too much, companies may elect to ship elsewhere. Once a toll becomes too much, companies may elect to ship elsewhere. Done right, the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project would have been an economic driver. It had the potential to raise home and property values. It could have helped create better and higher paying jobs. And it would have been an insurance policy in the event of a major hurricane, making it far less likely that storm surge would take out the Bayway and leave our communities largely disconnected from each other.
The Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project is dead. And politics as usual is what killed it...