Alabama buys Beach Express Bridge; Toll booths will come down before Memorial Day Weekend

Alabama buys Beach Express Bridge; Toll booths will come down before Memorial Day Weekend
By Fran Thompson
We used the word hopefully in our cover headline because we were not sure if an agreement is the same as a contract, and this tale of Pleasure Island bridges has been a winding one, full of unexpected twists, turns and detours.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey recently announced that the state, The City of Orange Beach and the Baldwin County Bridge Company have signed an agreement for the state to purchase the Foley Beach Express Bridge in Orange Beach.
The bridge will become toll free immediately upon change of ownership, which is expected to happen by at least noon on the Friday before Memorial Day (May 24), according to the release.
“Alabama’s Gulf Coast continues to experience record growth and success, and I am proud we are making needed infrastructure improvements in the area that will help alleviate traffic congestion for Alabamians and those visiting our beaches,” said Governor Ivey. “I appreciate all those involved in this agreement that will lead to significant progress for our Coastal communities.”
ALDOT will pay $57 million to Baldwin County Bridge Company and $3 million to the City of Orange Beach for local road improvements.
In addition, ALDOT will pay to widen Canal Road between the Foley Beach Express and the Waterways Bridge ALDOT is currently building about one mile to the west. The new bridge will be completed in the spring or early summer of 2026.
The state will also make improvements in the way of a bypass to the beach at the Hwy. 161 intersection with Canal Rd. in Orange Beach. Those projects are already included in ALDOT’s State Transportation Improvement Program.
“This agreement was made possible by the city’s willingness to forego annual financial benefits in order to achieve improved traffic flow for Orange Beach and Gulf Shores citizens and visitors,” said Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon.
“We have an annual revenue of $1.5 million from the bridge and that was for another 30 years or so. We’ve given up well over $50 million, but we’ve always said in the right situation, elimination of the toll and moving traffic was most important,” Kennon added.
Orange Beach has been receiving a flat rate of 30 cents per toll from BCBC.
According to the governor’s office, the Beach Express Bridge will be converted to carry northbound traffic while the Waterways Bridge will carry southbound traffic when that bridge is completed.
Orange Beach City Council will vote on a resolution approving the agreement at its regular meeting on May 7.
The bridge sale brings to an end the suit filed in 2022 against the state and ALDOT Secretary John Cooper by the Baldwin County Bridge Company.
Cooper backed the Waterways Bridge from the time ALDOT first announced it was funding the project back in 2018.
BCBC argued that Cooper acted in “bad faith” during later negotiations to instead widen the Foley Beach Express. Those negotiations were brokered by Mayor Kennon.
“For years, ALDOT Director John Cooper has been on a personal mission to destroy our company. As a result of Director Cooper’s actions, BCBC has been forced to increase its tolls,’’ BCBC stated in the release announcing the law suit.
“BCBC had proposed to build a new span and provide a 4-lane bridge for the citizens of Baldwin County to use for free,’’ the release stated.
The bridge company would have been contractually obligated to build a second span anyway if the traffic totals reached two million in June, July and August of any year and the annual total of tolls surpassed six million.
More than 5.6 million vehicles passed over the toll bridge in 2023 and its popularity has increased every year since it opened in 2000, except for COVID year 2020.
Bridge company President and CEO Neal Belitsky said the decision to increase the toll from $2.75 to $5 had nothing to do with trying to slow the volume so it doesn’t reach the threshold to trigger construction of a second span.
“I refer you to my statement of Aug. 30, 2023, which explains in detail why BCBC was forced to increase rates,” Belitsky said.
“With regard to BCBC’s choice to increase their tolls, the new bridge being constructed will operate toll-free for everyone forever. This is a much better deal for the people of Alabama than granting BCBC a 50-year monopoly with the ability to raise tolls on non-Baldwin County residents without limit,’’ ALDOT stated in response.
“We respect the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling that the bad faith claim made by BCBC has failed. We look forward to restarting construction of the new, free bridge as soon as possible to help reduce traffic congestion and provide an additional evacuation route,’’ the ALDOT release stated.
Orange Beach officials have stated that, unlike Hwy. 59, the new bridge will have only two lanes and does not take motorists directly to the beaches. The bridge branches off at Canal Road, giving motorists the options to veer west toward Gulf Shores or east into Orange Beach.
The Foley Beach Express was built by James/McInnis Group and included seven miles of new four lane highway that was dedicated to Baldwin County when the bridge opened for business in 2000.
Certainly, the most important infrastructure improvement on the island this century, the BCBC was privately funded.
Orange Beach would later loan the company $12 million, which was paid back with interest before the James/McInnis Group sold the company in 2006.
The Battle of the Bridges started in 2021 when Alabama pulled the plug on the Waterways Bridge the day before the construction bid was let and one month after Gulf Shores agreed to donate more than 26 acres to use as a right of way for a new spur road that would eventually link the Foley Beach Express to the emerging Waterway Blvd.
Permitting and funding were already in place. A roadway from County Road 4 to Canal Road, the bridge and a roundabout on Canal Road at the south landing point was to be included as part of the project’s phase one.
The decision to pull the plug the day before the project was to start came at the request of Orange Beach Mayor Kennon, who was able to open a dialogue with the new BCBC ownership group.
ALDOT said in a statement that the new developments Kennon brokered with the Foley Beach Express Toll Bridge owners were worth investigating.
Amazingly, Gulf Shores found out about it through a press release from the City of Orange Beach.
The initial request was for a three month delay to allow negotiations with Baldwin County Bridge Company that would allow ALDOT to avoid the expense of building an additional bridge.
“I am extremely disappointed to learn through a statement released by Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon that this project has been delayed, once again, after three years of fruitless negotiations with these new owners,’’ Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said at the time. “The transportation issues we are working to solve impact Gulf Shores as much as any community and it is totally unacceptable that we are not directly involved when decisions like this are made.
Montgomery Circuit Judge Jimmie Pool ordered the bridge project halted following a seven-day bench trial that included 13 witnesses and over 200 exhibits in May of 2022.
In August, the Alabama State Supreme Court reversed the preliminary injunction, stating that states and its agencies are immune from being sued.
Four days after the Supreme Court ruling, BCBC increased its toll from $2.75 to $5 with an explanation that Cooper’s actions “forced’’ the increase.
ALDOT spokesman Tony Harris, said that ALDOT’s aim was always about relieving traffic congestion on Highway 59, and making the Foley Beach Express toll free will certainly lead more local traffic in that direction.
The traffic count on the Hwy. 59 bridge is almost five times that of the Foley Beach Express,
“We want to safely reduce the traffic congestion that is a threat to residents’ quality of life and the area’s economy,” Harris said.
Traffic engineers still have two years to determine if opening each bridge to one way traffic only is the best way to move the most cars towards their destination.
But there is no doubt that making the Foley Beach Express a free road will alleviate congestion on Hwy. 59. And making each bridge one way may end up being the answer.
Mayor Kennon had a point back in 2021 when he told his citizens in an address that Orange Beach was always willing to go along with a new bridge, as long as it was open to one way traffic only.
“It’s an absurdity to think that two competing north-south bridges and roadways with three additional intersection conflict points that don’t flow as much traffic as singular, free-flowing bridge and toll booth,’’ he said.
“We need to come up with a solution that moves traffic, because if we do that the City of Orange Beach wins, the City of Gulf Shores wins, because now you reduce your congestion on Hw. 59,’’ Kennon added.
But State Senator Chris Elliott said that there are other options to consider.
“That final decision will be made later on,” said the Josephine based senator. “We’ll have to have conversations on whether that is the best plan. There are those of us that still live and work and play in that area. And we still have to get around on a daily basis.
“While the press release today said it’s going to be this way, we need to continue to have those discussions to make sure that it works well for the people that work and live there, and not just the folks that play there.”
The Wharf has already announced plans for the former Bama Bayou property on the north side of the Intracoastal Waterway, and two-day traffic on the Beach Express Bridge will be a consideration, as will traffic going to and from the new Gulf Shores High School and the subdivisions that seem to come out of the ground like kudzu in the southeast quarter of Foley.
Traffic engineers have two full years to determine if dual one way bridges are the answer, and not having concrete decisions made now should not prevent this deal from going through. Hopefully.