Special Report: Waiting for a Fix

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What are you doing tomorrow during rush hour? If you drive back and forth between Mobile and Baldwin counties, you’ll probably be sitting in traffic and wondering.

Wondering when that new bridge over the Mobile River we’ve been hearing about for some 30 years will be built.

FOX10 News has learned that an important milestone to getting that span built is expected to come soon.

WALLACE TUNNEL

It was the end of an historic decade in America – 1969, and construction work started on the George Wallace Tunnel under the Mobile River.

PHOTOS: Wallace Tunnel Construction

Work was finished four years later.

TUNNEL DELAY

Under the river and through the tunnel, it’s off to work we go – and stop.

“There are delays there constantly. One out of every three days, we have over an hour delay,” said one motorist.

It could be even longer if there’s an accident.

Time is money for Wayne Keith, the president of Keith Air Conditioning. His office is located in Mobile, but he said about 35 percent of his business is in Baldwin County.

He said particularly on a Friday, he tried to keep his service technicians in Baldwin County.

“So, we’re not, you know, caught in that situation where we’re tied up in, you know, two or three hours worth of traffic slowdowns. Sometimes, it’s been that long? Sometimes it’s been that long, sure,” Keith said.

A POSSIBLE SOLUTION?

Finally, though, after about 25 years of talking and debating, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel – a plan, location and timetable for a new bridge.

The Federal Highway Administration is currently reviewing a report prepared by the Alabama Department of Transportation on how a new bridge will impact the environment.

Then the FHA will put out what’s called a draft document on the bridge.

“What we’re hoping, to come out by late November, early December, is the draft document. Once that draft document is out, it will, more than likely have a preferred route,” said Vince Calametti with ALDOT.

The FHA has been studying four proposed routes.

The one favored by the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce and other civic leaders is called B Prime. In the proposal, the on-ramp leaves Interstate 10 from near Virginia Street. The route then climbs to 215 feet at the Mobile Riverbank and crosses the river with a six lane bridge, just below the cruise terminal.

Chamber officials have been talking to groups like the West Mobile Rotary Club about the proposal.

“It continues and it joins the Bayway about halfway between the tunnel and the Battleship. And the project also includes, as part of the planning, doubling the Bayway, on the inside lanes of the Bayway, so that you’re not just throwing more traffic going to the Bayway,” said Mike Lee with the Chamber of Commerce.

And to make sure the new bridge doesn’t cause a bottleneck on I-10?

“There is an additional product that could carry the extra lanes all the way to Florida, because, right now, we’ve got Florida and Mississippi on both sides with more lanes, and we don’t want to just move the bottleneck from Mobile to Spanish Fort,” Lee said.

The bridge could also include a bike path.

COST OF A NEW BRIDGE

How much would a new bridge cost? State transportation officials estimate $850 million, with about 80 percent of the money coming from the federal government.

Officials with the Chamber of Commerce said they’re optimistic the money will be coming, because of something U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told them when he visited Mobile in 2012.

“He met with the Chamber, met with our group, and he said this is a very high priority for the federal government,” said Lee.

The rest would have to come from the state and possibly other sources.

John Cooper, the director of ALDOT, said building the bridge is a big priority for Governor Robert Bentley.

“I’m convinced that, if we can get to the point that the problem is money, we’ll be able to find that money,” Cooper said.

However, some of that money might come out of your pocket when you drive up to the new bridge.

“I think clearly tolls would be one consideration we will have to look at.”

For better or worse, though, you don’t have to start saving money just yet.

“The design and engineering stage could take as long as two years. We’re certainly hoping its faster than that. We’ve heard estimates of bridge construction, which includes the widening of the Bayway, the whole project could be anywhere from four to seven years.”

HOW CAN THE PUBLIC SPEED UP THE PROCESS?

So, is there anything the public can do to speed things up?

“The public support is critical to be sure it doesn’t slow down anymore. Whether it speeds it up, it remains to be seen.”

To help build the public support, the Chamber has started a “Build the Bridge Coalition”. Chamber members are speaking to civic groups around the area.

“We’re looking for anybody who would like to write a letter of support, and add to that groundswell that we think we have, so that we can hurriedly get through these next couple of steps and get into the engineering and design phase.”

FOX10 News created a petition to get the FHA to make a decision on the bridge design. Sign the petition here.

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