Montgomery judge sides with toll bridge in halting construction
Proposal stipulated that no other bridges be built over the Intracoastal for 50 years
By Fran Thompson
In a ruling that shocked officials from Gulf Shores, the company that is already clearing access for the project (Scott Bridge Company of Opelika) and the State of Alabama, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Jimmy Pool recently issued an injunction that effectively stops construction of a new bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway just west of the Orange Beach-Gulf Shores border.
The Baldwin County Bridge Company, owners of the Foley Express Toll Bridge, sued to stop construction of the Waterways Bridge while the company pursued a lawsuit claiming the new bridge was unnecessary and could put them out of business.
The lawsuit claimed that ALDOT Director John Cooper acted in bad faith during negotiations and in retribution pursued the new bridge project to financially damage the company. Judge Pool agreed.
“Director Cooper’s outrageous conduct in embarking on spending more than $120 million of State funds, on a bridge that ALDOT does not need, for the purpose of putting a private company out of business shocks the conscience of the Court,” Judge Pool stated in his ruling.
Cooper said the decision was made based on traffic data and support from local and state officials.
ALDOT attorneys have filed paperwork to allow work to continue on the bridge during its appeal, citing that the BCBC’s goal is to eliminate competition.
Construction of the 375-foot, two-lane bridge located about a mile west of the toll bridge began in October in response to traffic congestion on Highway 59 and burgeoning population gains throughout South Baldwin County.
Census data showed that Gulf Shores and Orange Beach doubled their population from 2010 to 2020. Baldwin County added a whopping 47,000 citizens in that same decade, the highest total population gain of any Alabama county over that time. Current data shows that the county’s growth has only accelerated since 2020. Daphne-Fairhope-Foley is the 12th-fastest growing metro in the nation, according to Census data. Tourist numbers also continue to climb every month of every year.
During trial testimony, Cooper said the BCBC’s proposal gave the company “long-term exclusivity that we do not build a competing bridge.”
That was in reference to the part of BCBC’s proposal stipulating that no other competing bridges be built over the Intracoastal Waterway for 50 years.
In return, BCBC was going to build a two-lane bridge alongside the existing toll bridge and pay $73 million to ALDOT, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach for bridge related infrastructure. Use of the bridge would be toll-free for Baldwin County residents.
The bridge would be turned over to ALDOT after the 50 year moratorium. Judge Pool’s order claims Cooper never responded to that BCBC proposal.
“Today’s ruling is unfortunate. It means that the new, free bridge – where construction is already underway – is unnecessarily delayed. I am hopeful that the Alabama Supreme Court will allow this badly-needed construction to continue as the legal process proceeds so that this new, free, publicly-owned bridge can improve the safety and quality of life for Alabama residents and visitors alike,” Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said in response to the injunction.
Mayor Craft said he was especially concerned about hurricane evacuations and medical emergencies requiring transportation to facilities north of the Intracoastal Waterway.
“The Highway 59 bridge is F-rated and woefully over capacity nine months out of the year. On peak travel weekends – like this weekend – it can take over one hour to drive the 11 miles from north of Foley to the Beach Boulevard. This is a problem not just for tourist traffic flow, but for residents going to work, emergency vehicles taking people to the hospital, first responders en route to an incident, and for hurricane evacuations,” he said.
“The need for a new, free bridge is obvious. Baldwin County is the fastest growing county in Alabama, and our beach communities bring in more than 8 million visitors annually.’’
In the 80-page order, the judge said the ALDOT Director acted in bad faith toward BCBC when he decided ALDOT would build the new bridge. Director Cooper is not above the law and is not permitted to act in bad faith, the judge stated.
“We are disappointed in the decision because it’s clear that a new, free bridge is needed to help alleviate traffic congestion and offer a new evacuation option to residents and visitors to Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Years of negotiations with the private toll bridge company failed to deliver a solution. The public benefit of a new, free bridge should outweigh the interests of the private toll bridge company,’’ said ALDOT spokesman Tony Harris.
Judge Pool referred to the project as “Cooper Bridge” in his ruling and accused the ALDOT director of attempting to put BCBC out of business. He said the director acted independent of the governor.
But Gov. Kay Ivey remains in favor of building another free bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway, said spokeswoman Gina Maiola. “The bottom line is that Governor Ivey is focused on creating a free access road to alleviate congestion in Baldwin County, and who could argue with that during beach and hurricane season,” Mailoa said.
Pool’s injunction states that construction of the two-lane bridge must stop immediately. The injunction stated that the decision to build the bridge occurred without public meetings or traffic studies and state funds allocated for the bridge should instead be used for other infrastructure projects throughout the state.
“Today is a victory for the rule of law and the citizens of Alabama,” BCBC attorney Joe Espy stated. “People in positions of authority representing the government cannot do or say anything they want. When government officials attempt to target businesses through bad faith, the Courts of Alabama will hold them accountable.”
“The judge recognized it as a boondoggle and made it clear that one man made a decision out of personal animosity toward a legitimate business in Alabama, which is not the way we do business,” Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said, according to an al.com report.
Although Scott Bridge Company bid the project for around $51 million, Judge Pool’s stated it would cost $120 million to complete the project.
According to Judge Pool’s ruling, Cooper’s motivation for building the new bridge close to the Foley Beach Express was to force BCBC to give ALDOT its bridge. (It is about four miles from the Foley Beach Express Toll Bridge to the Hwy. 59 Bridge).
The bid for the Waterways Bridge, in the works since 2018, was on the state docket to be let on July 30, 2021. State funds for the project were allocated back in 2018. Environmental permits were in hand, and Gulf Shores had already donated 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 Waterway Blvd. (That will still happen).
But The State of Alabama pulled the plug on the day before construction bids were to be let, sending the entire project to the back of the room. Gulf Shores officials found out about the delay through a press release from Mayor Kennon stating that the delay would give him additional time to broker a better alternative and avoid the expense of building an additional bridge.
Mayor Craft’s contention then and now is that ALDOT’s proposed free bridge will immediately relieve traffic congestion on Highway 59 and enhance public safety by providing a third access on and off the island that will also serve as an evacuation route.
“Placing coastal Alabama’s transportation fate in the hands of a private toll bridge company is not a good deal for the people who live and work here or the millions who visit Alabama’s beaches each year,’’ Mayor Craft said.
Craft’s Orange Beach counterpart has always been consistant in his belief that traffic from the new bridge turning back east on Canal Rd. towards Orange Beach would make congestion at the southend of the Foley Beach Express nightmarish.
“The city of Orange Beach adamantly opposes that bridge to the west. Anything Gulf Shores wants to do with their roadways we support them. But they should pay for them. Not Alabama taxpayers,’’ Mayor Kennon said.
Kennon’s contention is that since ALDOT’s stated reason for building a new bridge ia to alleviate traffic congestion on Hwy. 59, finding a way to move more traffic through the Foley Beach Express toll booths would better accomplish that goal.
The privately owned Foley Beach Express added a second evacuation route from the island when it opened in 2000. Orange Beach loaned the BCBC $12 million back then. The loan has been repaid and the city’s take from its share of bridge tolls every year is signifiant. The contract between Orange Beach and BCBC runs through 2063.
In addition to adding another span, and allowing Baldwin County residents to use the bridge for free, the BCBC’s proposal includes expanding the number of kiosks, adding electronic tolling and widening que lanes.
Mayor Kennon said moving tourist traffic in and out of Orange Beach in the summer season is definitely a quality of life issue for residents, who often feel trapped at home when the roads are clogged.
“The improvement of the toll bridge brings in no additional intersections or conflict points. It’s essentially free-flowing once you get through the bridge up to County Road 8, which is the first intersection,’’ he said.
Mayor Kennon said moving more traffic through the Foley Express toll booth was always the state’s preferred solution and the Waterways Bridge project was necessary only because previous BCBC owners would not even return phone calls.
“Waterway Bridge was always a fallback position. It was never the primary objective. We always, from day one – Mayor Craft knew this, that (ALDOT) Director (John) Cooper essentially negotiated from this perspective. 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. “It’s an absurdity to think that two competing north-south bridges and roadways with three additional intersection conflict points can flow as much traffic as a singular, free-flowing bridge and toll booth.’’
Since the roundabout planned for the south landing of the proposed Waterways Bridge is in Orange Beach, dealing with it would be Orange Beach’s problem, Mayor Kennon said.