DALLAS -- Alabama is looking at a public-private partnership to help finance a new bridge on Interstate 10 over the Mobile River that could cost as much as $1.8 billion to complete.
John Cooper, director of the Alabama Department of Transportation, met with some 400 private representatives to discuss options for the bridge replacement project at a two-day industry forum that began on Monday.
"How we finance the project is, to some extent, what we will learn in these meetings," said Cooper.
Alabama DOT expects that the project could involve up to three private partners that would design, finance, build, and operate the new bridge. The state is scheduled to issue a request for qualifications this fall, with a request for proposals in mid-2018. Construction would begin in 2019 with completion in 2023.
"We just don't know where this will go,” Cooper said. "What we do know is through one of these methods, we'll build the bridge."
The project could cost between $850 million and $1.8 billion to complete, he said, depending on whether the four-lane span is replaced with an eight-lane bridge.
"I don't want to talk too much about that, because we are interested in seeing what these people think the cost is," Cooper said.
Alabama DOT is expected to be one of the state transportation departments represented an a convocation on Wednesday of state highway officials called by the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs to discuss the Trump administration’s ideas on infrastructure renewal.
The invitation said participants would include Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and D.J. Gribbin, special assistant to the president for infrastructure. Chao told a Senate Appropriations Committee panel in July that the president’s $1 trillion infrastructure renewal program, with $200 billion of additional federal funding, would be unveiled in September.
"The purpose of this event will be to underscore the need for a different approach, outline our draft guiding principles, and allow you all to brainstorm actions to help carry this conversation on the need for change and the opportunity to empower state and local leaders back to your states and communities," the invitation said.
Some federal funding would be needed for the Mobile replacement project, Cooper said.
“We will need some form of participation from the federal government, which we expect to get,” he said. “We will need a commitment from Alabama DOT at some level, which we expect to be able to fund. Obviously it would be nice to have those things replaced with some form of additional funding, from our standpoint."
The state is considering tolls on the replacement bridge, Cooper said.
Approximately 60% of motorists crossing the bridge on I-10 are from out of state, he said, while the rest are mostly Alabama residents commuting to downtown Mobile.
"We have always thought tolls should be a portion of the financing of this project just by the nature of this corridor," Cooper said. "We have a huge out-of-state [percentage of motorists] traveling through the corridor. We always believed those folks should help the people of Alabama, in a meaningful way, to help pay for the project."
Some of the funding for the new bridge may come from the federal Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act that compensates coastal states for environmental damages caused by offshore oil exploration and production as well as tolls, said Chris Elliott, chairman of the Baldwin County Commission.
"It's really all options on the table," said Elliott. "We are looking at a way that 60% of the traffic, not from Mobile and Baldwin counties, paying for a portion of this bridge through a tolling option.
Vince Calametti, Alabama DOT’s regional chief engineer, said the approaches to the Mobile replacement bridge may be built higher than the current access lanes to avoid damage from hurricane storm surges as happened in New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., in similar storms.