Foley Beach Express owners get extension for presenting traffic plan

Foley Beach Express owners get extension for presenting traffic plan
Gulf Shores mayor encourages citizens to lobby state officials to build new bridge

By John Mullen
The Baldwin County Bridge Company has received an extension on developing its plan on how it can attract and service 40 percent of the traffic going over the State Route 59 bridge in Gulf Shores.
Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said his worry is that the Alabama Dept. of Transportation will accept an alternative plan that is not able to deliver the expected result.
“We’re still in discussions about what bridge is going to be built, the additional waterway bridge or the improvement to the toll bridge,” Craft said at the end of a recent council work session.
“That decision has not been made. They’ve been given another extension of an opportunity for that. Now they’ve got Sept. 5 as a deadline to create a program that Director (John) Cooper and ALDOT will accept.”
But what happens then? Craft said if the toll bridge plan is accepted but doesn’t meet expectations, then what?
“One of the proposals was if they don’t carry 40 percent of the traffic the state will build a bridge,” Craft said. “So, how long will it take to build a new bridge, get the infrastructure in place and give them time to fail before you build a new bridge and then it takes time to build a bridge? We’re probably looking at 10 years – if they build that bridge – just like we are today. I don’t know about you guys but I can’t take that as we continue to grow.”
Craft encouraged citizens to begin urging state officials to build a new bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway about a mile west of the toll bridge to get the span he believes is sorely needed on the Gulf Coast.
“The toll bridge if they increase and add another span there it’s not going to solve our problem,” Craft said. “We’ll still have about 25 percent of that traffic going over that bridge that’s going to Orange Beach.”
But there is opposition from Gulf Shores’ sister resort city, with Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon saying the state’s proposed bridge is not “a viable possibility.”
“After five years, if that had not succeeded in moving traffic off (the Gulf Shores bridge), then there would be some kind of consequence,” Kennon said. “I’ve tried to stay out of the business but that’s a sticking point.”
Among the perks proposed in the bridge company’s plan is a $60 million windfall for Orange Beach which would receive $10 million right away and $1 million a year for 50 years if the plan is approved.
ALDOT is set to receive $25 million to help complete a spur road from the Beach Express to the North Waterway Boulevard extension to give another route to reach Highway 59 to then use that bridge to enter the island. After 50 years the company would give the toll bridge spans to the state under the current proposal.
Craft said study after study reveals cars headed to Orange Beach are crossing the canal in Gulf Shores then heading east.
“We’ve got so much toll avoidance now,” Craft said. “We’ve done this four times and every time we’ve had significant numbers of people coming this way to avoid the toll. It’d be the only reason they’d do it because both those roads are backed up. That’s not going to change If they build a bridge.”
According to statistics shared by Gulf Shores Orange Beach Tourism, Pleasure Island welcomed a record six million guests who spent $4.9 billion in 2021, marking the 10th time in the last 11 years that the island has showed an increase. Visitor spending on lodging and rentals in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach reaching a new record mark of $828 million, more than double the amount recorded just seven years ago in 2014.
It is not just the burgeoning tourist industry that will be served by a second Gulf Shores bridge. People are moving to Baldwin County in record numbers and part of the reason is our beautiful beaches.
The population in Gulf Shores increased by 54 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to data released from the 2020 U.S. Census, as the city grew its numbers from 9,741 to 15,014 during that 10 year period.
Orange Beach was right behind its island neighbor, growing an amazing 49 percent from 5,441 to 8,095 citizens, and Spanish Fort, Foley, Daphne and Fairhope were also among the 11 fastest growing cities in Alabama.
Loxley and Summerdale also registered significant growth, according to Census data.
Baldwin County surpassed Montgomery as the state’s fourth largest county, adding 47,000 people. That marked the highest total population gain of any Alabama county and represents a growth of 25.8 percent, also the highest in the state.
Gulf Shores is the only Alabama city with a population of 10,000 or more to grow by more than 50 percent. Fairhope’s population grew from 15,326 to 22,477 citizens, an increase of 46.7 percent. Both Gulf Shores and Spanish Fort started the decade with fewer than 10,000 residents.
Foley grew 39 percent, increasing from 14,618 to 20,335 citizens. Daphne increased its population by 27 percent from 21,570 to 27,462 citizens. Loxley grew an amazing 127 percent from 1,632 to 3,710 in population.
Robertsdale grew 27 percent from 5,276 to 6,708 citizens, and Summerdale grew 70 percent from 862 to 1,468 in population. Elberta increased its population 31.8 percent from 1,498 to 1,974 citizens.
“We need a call to action,” Craft said. “We cannot live like this.”
On July 29, 2021, the Alabama Department of Transportation pulled the plug on a new bridge leading into Gulf Shores in order to begin negotiations with the Baldwin County Bridge Company (BCBC) on a plan to add extra lanes and reduce tolls on the Foley Beach Express Bridge.
The decision came at the request of Orange Beach’s mayor. Amazingly, Gulf Shores found out about through a press release from Mayor Kennon.
“It’s time to speak openly and candidly on this,” Craft said. “For the state to sacrifice our quality of life and financial future to support a for-profit toll bridge company is not an acceptable solution. It’s a story that just has to be told.”
Craft said permitting and funding were already in place when ALDOT was scheduled to let the project for bid on July 30, 2021, just a 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.
The new Waterways Bridge was going to be located near the city’s eastern boundary, about a half mile west of the Beach Express Toll Bridge. The state has spent around $20 million acquiring property for the project and has spent around $20 million acquiring property to prepare for the Gulf Shores bridge project.
“They could put it out for bid anytime they wanted to,’’ Mayor Craft said. “We are looking at that again potentially in September. There is no other place to build a bridge.
“We need the public’s help. You have to help us when we get ready for a call-to-action strategy and help us get the word out the best we can to Montgomery. It’s not just a few elected officials here complaining. I believe there are the same concerns in Orange Beach.”
Mayor Kennon said the new bridge would cause more not less traffic congestion on Pleasure Island, especially leading into his city. He believes the new bridge would not lesson the traffic burden on Hwy 59, even if the metric the state creates proves more traffic lanes and automatic tolling system can attract 40 percent of the traffic currently using the Hwy. 59 bridge.
Craft said Baldwin County Bridge Company’s proposal includes a provision that no new bridges be built over the Intracoastal Waterway in Gulf Shores for 50 years.
“That was in their request. It’s totally ridiculously unacceptable,’’ Craft said.
Kennon from the time he was able to convince the state to re-address plans for the Waterways Bridge, has said the Gulf Shores bridge was about the city connecting with its housing and business developments and a new school campus north of the Intracoastal.
“This whole process was about moving traffic and it’s not about moving local traffic and local conveniences but moving mass numbers of vehicles in and out of Orange Beach during the heavy seasons,” he said. “The last thing we need is a bridge that is a local convenient movement that impedes moving the large numbers in the summer season.”