ALDOT gathers more info from G.S. & Baldwin Co. Bridge Company

ALDOT gathers more info from G.S. & Baldwin Co. Bridge Company

Decision could come as soon as Dec. 3, but project has already been delayed once

By John Mullen & Fran Thompson
The Alabama Dept. of Transportation Waterways Bridge project, which is part of a planned new corridor from the Beach Express just south of Coastal Gateway Boulevard over the Intracoastal Waterway, was originally on the bid letting for July 30.
The bid letting for that bridge is now on ALDOT’s list for Dec. 3 but since it was pulled one day before the monthly letting in July, another delay is definitely possible.
It was removed late in the process in July after Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon asked for three months to negotiate with the Baldwin County Bridge Company, owners of the Foley Beach Express Toll Bridge, to among numerous other traffic easing improvements, add an additional two-lane span over the Intracoastal Waterway in Orange Beach, with BCBC picking up the $25 million tab.
The Baldwin County Bridge Company has met with officials from Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and the state and was given criteria it must meet for traffic counts by Alabama Department of Transportation Director John Cooper.
ALDOT said on Oct. 28 that negotiations were ongoing and it is “making steps to include the bridge project in our December bid opening.”
“Director Cooper’s mandate is that they prove that they can move 40 percent of the traffic that’s coming over both bridges to that bridge and that bridge would carry 40 percent and this bridge (in Gulf Shores) would carry 60 percent,” Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said. “To prove they could do that is a pretty steep climb. I don’t know how they prove it.”
Unless they can, Craft said, the state is looking to move forward with the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway about 1.5 miles west of the toll bridge by The Wharf.
In the bridge company’s presentation, it was projected that the new lanes would give the bridge to ability to handle 2,400 cars an hour compared to the proposed state bridge, which it projects could only handle 1,000 an hour.
Another part of their proposal would give a discount to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach residents of $5 per month to use the toll, with Baldwin County residents given the option to do the same for $10 a month. Tourists would pay between $2.50 and $3.25 per trip.
The BCBC also said it would provide a cash payment of $10 million to the city if the expansion is built and $1 million a year for 50 years to be “used at the city’s discretion.” It also stipulates after 50 years as an expanded bridge the company would simply give the structure to the state.
Also offered to the state was 25 percent of revenues collected above $13 million. The 25 percent would not include island and county resident discounted passes.
With the additional span, the toll booth would expand from five to 11 kiosks, including fly-throughs with electronic tolling to help keep cars moving. The queue lanes would be widened and shaped so traffic would be free-flowing on both north and south sides.
Craft and Gulf Shores Councilman Philip Harris attended a meeting brought officials from traffic consultant Skipper and Associates and Volkert Engineering, the designer of both proposed bridges, to a meeting with ALDOT. Skipper brought the results of a study on the volume of traffic over both bridges.
“The number of cars going over our bridge is 55,000 cars a day average and they’re carrying a little over 10,000 cars a day,” Craft said. “We need them to take more or we need a new bridge and that was really the way it was left. Director Cooper instructed them in things that he was looking to see and if they could convince him that they could carry that amount of traffic which is a significant portion of the total.”
In the event Cooper is convinced a new toll bridge can attract 40 percent of the traffic from the Hwy. 59 bridge in Gulf Shores, Craft said his city would continue to advocate for the new state bridge.
“If that comes back in a different way, if he feels like he can do it then I think then we go and complain,” Craft said. “I don’t think we can possibly believe they are going to take 20 percent more of the bridge traffic away from here or 40 percent. I don’t know how they get there. I don’t know how we get people to them is the big issue. Depending on how this goes I don’t think I’m willing to sit back and say OK, we believe you. I think it will require more of a public outcry.”
Skipper’s study projected without a new bridge at either location in 20 years the combined traffic over each span would reach almost 100,000 a day with more than 80,000 coming in at Gulf Shores and about 16,000 going over the toll bridge. The same study projected with a new Gulf Shores bridge the traffic volume in 20 years would be in the same range but 66,000 a day would come across at State Route 59, 30,000 over the new ICW bridge and about 1,300 on the toll bridge.
In a closer year comparison, Skipper estimates 61,800 cars per day would be using the State Route 59 bridge in 2027 with 12,000 using the toll bridge for total of 73,000. With a third bridge Skipper projected that 2027 traffic volumes would 51,100 per day in Gulf Shores, 23,150 on the new ICW bridge and 950 at the toll bridge.
The report also said averaging 55,000 cars per day puts the bridge at 135 percent capacity so even the 51,000 per day with a new bridge would still have way above capacity.
The state has already spent $20 million buying property for the right of way for the entire length of the project and all permitting for the project is in place. State funds were allocated more than three years ago and 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.
The proposed bridge location is in Orange Beach near the city’s eastern boundary, about a half mile west of the Beach Express Toll Bridge. Craft said ALDOT had also committed to a connector from The Foley Beach Express to the emerging East Waterway Blvd.
Craft said enhancing public safety by providing a third access on and off the island during hurricane evacuations is also a major concern.
Traffic from the new bridge turning back east through a roundabout on Canal Rd. towards Orange Beach would make congestion at the southend of the Foley Beach Express nightmarish, according to the Orange Beach mayor.
“I would prefer to have the situation right now than for us to have to deal with what that would create on that side with the quagmire. I can’t even imagine what an auto accident in the middle of one of the roundabouts would do to traffic congestion,’’ he said.
Kennon stated ALDOT’s goal from the beginning was to alleviate traffic congestion on Hwy. 59, not necessarily to build a new bridge, and Orange Beach was tasked with doing that by finding a way to help move more traffic through the Foley Beach Express toll booth.
The Beach Express Toll Bridge opened to great acclaim in 2000. Through a contract that runs through 2063, Orange Beach earns about $1.5 million for its general fund from its share of bridge tolls every year, according to Kennon.
Both cities’ mayors noted that Baldwin County is growing as a tourist destination, while also experiencing huge growth in the number of people moving here.
Kennon said the bridge project was a second option only because Orange Beach was not even able to get the previous BCBC owners on the phone.
“Waterway Bridge was always a fallback position. It was never the primary objective. Improving traffic flow over the toll bridge and down the expressway was by far the most efficient and effective way to move traffic off and on the island,’’ he said.
“Let’s be clear. The desired result was not to create or impede traffic flow for a local convenience or result. And, that’s exactly what the Waterway Bridge and roadway is,’’ he added.
“That is a locals bridge with a local roadway to local schools that has nothing whatsoever to do with improving the ability to move traffic north and south or get traffic off of 59.’’

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