Eastern Shore MPO plan officially cuts toll bridge

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SPANISH FORT – The Mobile River Bridge project was officially dropped from highway construction plans last week, but officials are still working toward a way to resolve congestion crossing the bay.

The Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization voted Sept. 25 to approve its Transportation Improvement Plan, or TIP, for 2020 through 2023. The MPO voted in August to remove the bridge project from the TIP after residents and officials expressed concerns that the proposed toll for the route would place too high a burden on the local economy.

The $2.1-billion project to build a high-rise bridge over the Mobile River and expand the Interstate 10 Bayway required MPO approval to be eligible for federal funding. After the August vote, Gov. Kay Ivey said removing the bridge from the TIP killed the project.

Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood, chairman of the MPO, said that while the highway system between Baldwin and Mobile counties needs to be expanded, the board did the right thing to stop the toll bridge.

“Given the concerns with some of the other projects in this area, we’ve looked at that thoroughly and feel that’s the right course of action,” Haygood said.

Fairhope City Council President Jack Burrell said officials will still look for ways to improve the bay crossing.

“We voted to remove it from the TIP. We’ve all been in favor of this project in some form or another for a long, long time. I believe we all desire to see that move forward, but not in its current form,” Burrell said.

He said Baldwin County will continue to work with the Alabama Department of Transportation on the project.

“Again, I want to reach out to ALDOT and reach out once again to the Governor’s Office and say this Policy Board does want to sit down with you and it does want to amend out TIP, but we must see some changes,” Burrell said. “We need some common sense.”

County Commissioner Joe Davis said he was encouraged during a recent trip to Washington when federal officials continued to express support for the bridge project.

“We agreed not to bring up the toll bridge or the project and at every meeting we attended, that was the first thing that our senators brought up, the chiefs of staff brought up, staff members brought up. And it was all in the positive light meaning we need to learn from what’s been done and move forward to coming up with ways to address a need and a safe capacity increase in both directions, so I’m very optimistic,” Davis said. “I am cautiously optimistic that we are going to be able to find a way to get a bridge to connect our counties without having to deal with the proposal that was on the table.”

Haygood said state and local officials must overcome the public distrust created when ALDOT officials announced that the toll on the bridge and bayway would be $6 for a one-way trip.

“There has been some discussion with the governor’s Office and ALDOT, trying to discuss ways to move the project forward under different circumstances,” Haygood said. “We’re going to have to work together. It’s going to be from both sides of the bay. I think it’s going to be a difficult process. I think it’s going to take a commitment by all of our local officials, both MPOs and ALDOT. Because, quite frankly, there is a distrust that exists right now within the public and we have to acknowledge that and accept that.”