By Mélanie LeCroy / [email protected]
ORANGE BEACH – At the start of Tuesday’s city council meeting, Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon took time to respond to online discussions and questions about the bridge debate.
In a statement Friday, July 30, Kennon said Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Department of Transportation Director John Cooper agreed to a three-month negotiation period with the Baldwin County Bridge. Company (BCBC) and that the Alabama Department of Transportation suspended the bidding process for the new waterway bridge that was scheduled to open on July 30.
Shortly after Kennon’s statement was released to the media and online, Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft released his own statement expressing disappointment over the delay. The Waterway Bridge project has been under construction for many years, but eventually received all permits and right-of-way and the $ 70 million in funds guaranteed by the State of Alabama to build a free bridge.
“Sadly, there was a press release issued by Gulf Shores that basically accused us of selfishness, infamous and off-deck profiteering and that was the root of our support on a certain road. This prompts us, says the bridge company and the state of Alabama because it is a tripartite agreement. I have to sort this out. It arrived on social media and there were a lot of comments and questions. I think whenever it comes to social media it needs to be taken care of immediately so that the more urban myths and rumors don’t spill over into the community, ”Kennon said.
According to Kennon, the city of Orange Beach was approached by the state of Alabama three years ago and asked to enter into negotiations with the former toll bridge company to help the state get out. traffic from Hwy 59 and on the Foley Beach Freeway. These negotiations resulted in the acceptance by the BCBC to expand from five to 11 toll booths with electronic toll capability, permanent Freedom Pass lanes and add another span to the bridge, creating two northbound lanes and two southbound lanes. The expansion of the toll bridge cabins would occur within 18 months and a new span added within three years. The financial burden of the expansion would be borne by the BCBC.
Throughout the meeting, Kennon highlighted the points of traffic conflict and the number of intersections the new waterway bridge could create compared to the toll bridge expansion plan.
“Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are a great destination. We’re going to have traffic and it’s going to continue to grow as we grow, ”Kennon said. “Efficient traffic translates into a better quality of life not only for our visitors, but also for those of us who live here and have to deal with it, especially during the summer season. The expansion of the existing toll bridge does not increase the number of intersections or points of conflict. Waterway’s current proposal is a north / south to west route with a north / south route to the bridge without any extension to the toll plaza as they will not invest at all when they have a competing bridge to the west. This creates three very complicated intersections: County Road 8, County Road 4 and at the base of the bridge on Canal Road.
The Waterway Bridge Road runs along the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach line which ends at Orange Beach with a large roundabout. Kennon said Orange Beach will be responsible for monitoring new intersections, handling traffic and accidents.
“Any inefficient traffic created by a new road with three conflicting intersections, the burden will be borne by the City of Orange Beach and our residents. It won’t be for Gulf Shores or Foley, but for us, ”Kennon said.
The city of Orange Beach made an agreement in 2004 with the then toll bridge company to lend them $ 12 million. The funds were repaid over time. The contract is now worth $ 0.30 per car on the toll bridge for a total of $ 1.5 million this year. According to Kennon, this is the first year they’ve received $ 1.5 million. The contract is valid until 2033, when the city will have the option to buy the bridge at ten times revenue or extend the contract until 2063, which represents almost $ 70 million for the city of ‘Orange Beach. The funds Orange Beach receives from the toll bridge are placed in the general fund and used to provide quality of life amenities, beach and park cleaning, Kennon explains.
“I don’t know about Gulf Shores, maybe they have $ 70 million, but $ 70 million is a lot of money for the town of Orange Beach. It is also our fiduciary responsibility to honor and protect this contract and not leave it because someone else decides they have a way around it that is more convenient for them, ”Kennon said.
Kennon also responded to comments that 34% of traffic coming off the freeway bypasses the toll bridge to avoid paying a toll.
” It’s wrong. If they bypass the toll bridge, it is because they realize that going down the freeway to get to Gulf Shores is faster than going down Route 59 to get to Gulf Shores. Are there a few people who, in principle, will take a 30-minute drive to bypass the toll? There are some, I know them and there are some in this room. But what I mean is it’s very rare. The majority of that traffic on County Road 4 goes to Gulf Shores, ”Kennon said.
The one thing Kennon and Craft have both expressed is a desire to reduce summer traffic on Highway 59, but the State of Alabama and ALDOT will ultimately decide how this is accomplished. The three-month negotiation period will end at the end of October.