The back-and-forth over a new bridge near Alabama's beaches continues as the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) prepares to begin construction on the project.
While there is support for the Intracoastal Waterway Boulevard, which would extend from Canal Road to County Road 8 on the Foley Beach Express in Baldwin County, there is also some opposition.
The 75-foot-tall bridge over the Intracoastal Canal would be the third bridge for beachgoers to cross. Currently, the Alabama Highway 59 bridge and the Foley Beach Express toll bridge function as the main thoroughfares to the Baldwin County beaches.
The company that operates the Foley Beach Express, the Baldwin County Bridge Company (BCBC), opposes the ALDOT project. The company has been offering negotiations for years, attempting to convince ALDOT it can fix traffic woes on its own.
Before ALDOT proceeded with its new bridge plans, BCBC proposed improvements and additions to its already-existing bridge. Those improvements included the construction of a new span, road alignment, signage improvements and construction of an expanded plaza with additional lanes for express pass holders. Construction on those upgrades would have taken three years to complete from the proposed start date in April 2023. The bridge company also offered free usage for all Baldwin County residents, along with the following:
$3,000,000 to ALDOT for improvements to the intersection of Canal Road and the Beach Express;
$10,000,000 to ALDOT to be used for road and infrastructure projects to be funded at the discretion of Gulf Shores;
$10,000,000 to Orange Beach for projects to be funded at the discretion of Orange Beach; and
$50,000,000 to Orange Beach to be paid out at $1,000,000 per year over the 50-year term of the agreement.
At the end of the 50-year term of the rejected proposal, the BCBC would have conveyed the bridge to ALDOT. BCBC said the proposed improvements would have saved taxpayers over $100 million in construction and over $50 million in maintenance costs.
However, ALDOT rejected the proposal and moved forward with plans for the new toll-free bridge. Since then, the BCBC filed a lawsuit against ALDOT and ALDOT director John Cooper.
ALDOT responded to the lawsuit by saying the new bridge would play a vital role in reducing traffic issues. Cooper said the department has tried to negotiate with the bridge company for years without success.
Gulf Shores public information officer Grant Brown said a plan for a new bridge is in place, one that will be beneficial for drivers and beachgoers.
"After years of studying and politicking and everything, ALDOT's decided to build an additional bridge, which we are excited about," Brown said.
However, Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon has been vocal about his opposition to the new bridge.
"I'm sort of flabbergasted by it because I don't know who supports it," Kennon said during Mobile radio's "The Jeff Poor Show" on Monday. "It doesn't help our traffic situation at all, and it's of my opinion that it makes it worse."
Kennon has called for a debate with Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft over the matter. However, Craft told 1819 News he wasn't interested in going back and forth on an issue that he had no control over.
"I'm not interested in having a debate on a project that's already been approved and ready to go," Craft explained.
Craft said he supports the new bridge because the Highway 59 bridge received an "F" rating due to the number of vehicles that travel the bridge.
"Three times we have posted an Origin and Destination study from people leaving the Foley Beach Express, going around the toll, coming to Gulf Shores, going over our free bridge, and then going back to Orange Beach," said Craft. "The Highway 59 bridge is an 'F' rated bridge. It's carrying about 10,000 cars beyond its designed capacity. We're congested. We can't get on and off into Gulf Shores."
Craft said the free bridge is overcapacity because of people trying to avoid the toll bridge, which is why adding lanes to a toll bridge would not solve the problem. He added that emergency services are also suffering due to traffic congestion, and when a hurricane evacuation plan is in place, it takes too long to get out of Gulf Shores.
"It's a bridge issue based off congestion, and it's fairly common for people to have a toll-avoidance strategy," Craft added.
However, Kennon said an issue he sees with building a new bridge is that Orange Beach would have to manage surrounding intersections and roadways once the bridge was complete. He said there is no way to get to the bridge without major road construction, and he doesn't believe a new bridge is necessary. He believes government officials are taking over the project simply because they don't like the company that operates it.
"In the absence of logic and reason, there is generally a selfish agenda or a selfish ideology, and that's the assumption I have to make at this point," Kennon added. "... I don't necessarily like tolls, I don't dislike tolls, but all I know is this toll bridge has been there for 23 years, and when it was built 23 years ago or whatever it was, everybody was jumping up and down for joy to pay a toll because we didn't have a way to get out of Orange Beach or to Orange Beach. So, to come back now and have this personal animus, and I guess that's what's going on, toward a toll company, to the extent that it cuts our noses to spite our faces, makes absolutely no sense to me."
Kennon said the new bridge plan is an overreach and will put BCBC in a financial bind.
"This really gives me chills if they're willing to put somebody out of business," Kennon added.
Craft believes Kennon is fighting for improvements to the toll bridge instead of building a new bridge because Orange Beach gets some of the funds from paid tolls.
"I am not a party to this," said Craft. "Tony [Kennon] is more so than I am because they do earn a portion of the toll bridge, and I think he's concerned this will be a financial hit to them."
Kennon denied that the funds from the toll bridge were enough to make a difference.
"The amount of money we get off that bridge is minuscule compared to our budget," Kennon said.
Kennon added that he is seeing inaccurate information from other officials, and he wants that to stop.
"I keep calling them out on it, but they ignore me," Kennon said on the radio. "But when I see government agencies and other cities putting out press releases that are absolutely false, then I've got to think something nefarious is going on here, and maybe I ought to keep my mouth shut, but I can't do that."
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