March 31, 2017 5:00 PM, EDT
New Wal-Mart Distribution Center to Impact Port of Mobile Traffic, I-10 Traffic
Interstate 10 in coastal Alabama is expected to grow even busier next spring as a new wave of big trucks rolls onto the roadway.

Those 600 or more trucks will be moving back and forth daily between the Port of Mobile and Wal-Mart's new supersize regional distribution center west of Mobile in the Grand Bay area.

It's a lot of heavy-hauling semis for 25 miles of expressway that connect the city's core to heavily populated areas west and south, as local leaders acknowledge.

"We are aware of the traffic," said Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl.

"They are convinced the roads are sufficient," said Jimmy Lyons, director and CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority. "They looked hard at this site and other sites."

The big-truck issue was one of the topics that arose after the official announcement March 29 at APM Terminals that Wal-Mart's $135 million distribution center is expected deliver a jolt to container traffic at the Mobile port.

Lyons said the port anticipates a 10% increase in container activity, a figure that amounts to 25,000 containers annually. The Port of Mobile already ranks among the most active ports along the Gulf of Mexico.

Lyons said that transport of the containers bound for Wal-Mart to the regional distribution center will involve about three trucks each.

More than 44,000 vehicles already travel along I-10 each day in west Mobile County, although there is no breakdown on how many of those are semitrailers.

The distribution center, when fully operational, will be a logistics hub for the nation's No. 1 retailer, which also ranks No. 3 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in North America. The center will service approximately 800 of Wal-Mart's 4,600 U.S. stores. Those 800 stores are scattered over a sweeping area of the nation's heartland, from Alabama and Mississippi northward to the Great Lakes region.

According to a Wal-Mart spokesman, the Mobile distribution center will rank in the top 10% of the company's U.S. facilities in size and scope.

While most of the truck traffic will be contained within Mobile County, officials do anticipate some increase eastbound into the George Wallace Tunnel.

To the east, the fear is that the four-lane tunnel could become even more congested. The I-10 Bayway — stretching 7-1/2 miles across Mobile Bay connecting Mobile and Baldwin counties — is infamous for spectacular bottlenecks during rush hours and peak travel seasons.

A large coalition of local leaders is clamoring for an $850 million bridge project and Bayway widening, but there's no timetable on when that might get done, if ever.

Carl said that local public officials "can't sit and wait" on the bridge or other infrastructure dreams to materialize as they pursue economic development deals. The Wal-Mart regional distribution center, alone, is expected to create more than 550 full-time jobs.

Carl did say that he is pleased that the Alabama Department of Transportation is planning for a $33.4 million widening of I-10 from Carol Plantation Road west toward McDonald Road, next to the distribution center tract.

"The state has been helpful," Carl said. "I cannot imagine them not doing something pretty quick."

ALDOT's project, which will expand that portion of I-10 from four lanes to six, isn't expected to be under construction until 2022.

For now, Wal-Mart is pleased with the roads near its future distribution center home.

Phillip Keene, spokesman for Wal-Mart, described the Bentonville, Arkansas-based corporation's agreement with Mobile and Alabama officials as a "total package" that benefits all sides. A laundry-list of state, local and county incentives helped sway the company to coastal Alabama, including $15.3 million in property and sales tax abatements and up to $6.5 million toward the land purchase and road improvements.

As for traffic concerns with trucks, Keene said: "I think that whatever issues may arise, we'd be able to work together. This process, by everyone's account, has been a positive one. I'd anticipate if we had any sort of issues and we get six to 12 months into construction and we didn't anticipate A or B, we'd come back to this strong partnership with the city, county and state."

Among the solutions floated by Lyons is a possible extension of hours at the port. He said the Port Authority plans to keep the terminal open more hours during the day, and on Saturdays. Presently, trucks can access the highly-secured area from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday through Fridays only.

"The loads will be spread out over more hours," said Lyons.

Meanwhile, the surge in truck traffic could be politically favorable for bridge advocates who are pushing federal lawmakers and the Trump administration to green-light the project.

Bill Sisson, president/CEO of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, said the distribution center's arrival underscores the importance of having a bridge over the Mobile River immediately south of downtown Mobile.

A contingent of Mobile area officials are expected to be in Washington, D.C., in April to meet with representatives in the Federal Highway Administration to continue discussing the project.

The project has been listed as a top state priority if the Trump administration presses ahead with a $1 trillion infrastructure program.

"Certainly for this community to benefit from the port infrastructure is the connectivity to the I-10 bridge," said Sisson. "We need to be able to move goods and services around, as well as people. That's why the east-west infrastructure is needed." 

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