By Garry Mitchell
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
MOBILE, Ala. (AP) Alabama transportation officials, facing mounting political pressure in the port city, said Nov. 15 they will consider a route north of Mobile in planning a high-rise bridge link to Interstate 10.
But they have not ruled out other routes that critics claim would harm downtown businesses and tourist attractions and damage the Mobile skyline.
Since 1995, the Alabama Department of Transportation has been studying plans for a new bridge, comparable to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Without choosing its final route, the department had dismissed a northern route — until the Nov. 15 announcement.
The proposed bridge aims to eliminate a deadly twin tunnels bottleneck on the heavily traveled east-west I-10 route. Eastbound traffic on the interstate must drop from 70 mph to 45 mph in a tunnel curve in Mobile that’s been the scene of many overturned tractor-trailers and fatal crashes.
In Montgomery, ALDOT spokesman Tony Harris said there’s no timetable yet for starting bridge construction.
“This will definitely be the single most expensive transportation project in state history,” he said, with early estimates at between $750 million to $1 billion. “We’ve got to be sure it truly gives us the remedy we need for traffic issues in Mobile.”
Three proposed routes — one off I-10 over the shipyards and two nearer downtown — are being considered.
But port industries and downtown historic preservationists campaigned for a northern route that would use the existing Cochrane-Africatown Bridge, connecting with I-65 and I-165.
ALDOT District Engineer Ronnie Poiroux told approximately 100 representatives of downtown businesses and homes in a meeting Nov. 15 at the Museum of Mobile that the northern route would be considered.
Former state Sen. Ann Bedsole, who led the meeting, said the addition of the northern route is a “great victory. We’re in the ballgame now.”
Bedsole said she had written a letter to state Transportation Director Joe McInnes asking him to consider the northern route. In a reply this month, she said McInnes agreed to include it. Former Mayor Mike Dow two years ago had also urged McInnes to consider the northern route and there has been similar pressure from the city council.
Some at the meeting noted that ALDOT’s change of position on the bridge comes on the heels of adverse publicity over environmental damage from a separate project — its U.S. 98 work in west Mobile County. The muddy runoff from that project brought a water contamination lawsuit from county water officials in November against ALDOT.
“I don’t think there’s any connection to the two,” said Harris, the ALDOT spokesman. “With so much interest in looking at the northern route, it’s something we feel it’s worth doing.”
At the Nov. 15 meeting, Mobile attorney Robert Edington said if ALDOT approves the northern route, it would be better for the county and the city of Prichard, which is near the Cochrane bridge.
“I think they’re going to give it serious consideration,” Edington said.
He said a bridge route over part of downtown to the existing I-10 Bayway bridge would hurt local businesses and tourist attractions like Battleship Park. The Bayway would be widened to eight lanes to handle the new bridge traffic flow.
Opponents of the downtown bridge route also say it would damage the city’s skyline, harm shipping companies and the cruise industry.
ALDOT will consider new factors before making its final choice. The giant Thyssen-Krupp steel mill in north Mobile County and an auto race track and retail complex near Saraland are expected to change interstate traffic patterns and force changes in studies being done by ALDOT.
Volkert & Associates consultant N. D. “Skeeter” McClure, an adviser to ALDOT on the project, said including the northern route may add at least a year to the planning.
Once a final route is selected, the Federal Highway Administration must approve it.