Gulf Shores bridge battle: ALDOT hearing for ‘controversial’ $87 million project draws standing room-only crowd
GULF SHORES — It was a typical off-season November night on Alabama’s coast on Thursday night. The temperature was a brisk 47 degrees. Traffic coming into South Baldwin County from the north on Alabama Highway 59 and the Foley Beach Express was light. Many businesses along those routes and coastline in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach were operating far below their tourist season capacities.
However, there was one place that was bursting at the seams on this night. The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) was hosting a public hearing at the Gulf Shores Activity Center for a proposed connector that would link from Alabama Highway 180 (Canal Road) to the Foley Beach Express.
Part of the $87 million project includes a bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, with the added feature of having no support pilings in the actual waterway, that separates the bulk of Baldwin County’s beach communities from the rest of the county.
This project would supplement the existing two bridges: the four-lane Dr WC Holmes Bridge, which services Alabama Highway 59, and the two-lane toll bridge that services the Foley Beach Express to the east.
This new proposed bridge has been the focal point of a controversy that has made its way far beyond southwest Alabama and has even been the subject of attack ads in other media markets in Alabama, which criticize ALDOT for making this project a higher priority than others around the state.
The hearing drew many elected officials and leaders of civic organizations for and against the project. Among those were Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft and Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, both proponents of the plan.
“I don’t think anybody that lives on this island, or anybody that visits this island is not frustrated somewhat with the traffic issues we have,” Craft said in his remarks to the attendees. “We’ve been looking with Orange Beach at every option we could find to help make this better. We believe that this is the best option. It may be the only option because we got two bridges now, and we still have got concentrated traffic issues.”
Kennon made similar overtures in support of the project and warned if the ALDOT proposal were rejected, the money would likely be spent elsewhere in the state.
“ALDOT is working very hard to meet our needs,” Kennon said to attendees. “We have been neglected for many, many years. They’re bringing money down here to help us out. Why does anybody want to say ‘no,’ to spend that money in Birmingham, Montgomery or wherever, because it’s going to be spent somewhere? It’s a free bridge. It’s taxpayer dollars, but it’s still our bridge.”
Kennon also took issue with the price-tag of $87 million assigned to the bridge, noting that the number is on the high-end and includes the entire connector that spans from Canal Road to the Foley Beach Express.
“The number you hear thrown around is an $87-million bridge,” he added. “It’s not an $87-million bridge. At the top end is an $87 million road-bridge project.”
Also in attendance was State Auditor Jim Zeigler, a public critic of ALDOT’s handling of and transparency regarding the project.
Zeigler did not speak at the hearing, but offered the comments he submitted to ALDOT to some of the media in attendance.
“I have been trying since April 2018 to get answers to basic questions about the proposed new bridge,” Zeigler wrote. “I filed a written request for public documents on Aprill 17, 2018 but received none. I filed a second notice on July 12, 2018. Again, I received no response. I am now using the forum of this public hearing and comment period to request — for the third time — the answers to my questions.”
Copy of Zeigler’s July 12, 2018 request below:
An opponent of the bridge that did speak at the hearing was Gulf Shores realtor Joe Emerson, leader of the “End the #Bridge2Nowhere” effort.
Emerson, seemingly outnumbered at Thursday’s event, sees the project as a non-solution and urged ALDOT to consider alternatives.
“I still maintain that this doesn’t do anything help move traffic on Pleasure Island,” he said to Yellowhammer News. “This just simply dumps traffic back on to [Alabama Highway] 180. The only way we’re going to ever resolve these issues on Pleasure Island is to build a cross-island corridor, and that project has been in the concept phase for over a decade.”
In an interview after the hearing, Kennon downplayed opposition and argued it was their turn after having been neglected by policy and lawmakers in Montgomery.
“I learned there’s no logical and reasonable opposition,” Kennon said to Yellowhammer News. “This is a needed bridge. It is taxpayer dollars well spent. This is a huge economic machine for Alabama. It’s an investment in infrastructure for a huge economic machine. So, it is a good business decision. We’ve been neglected for years down here. And now ALDOT and the governor has really taken an interest, and it’s very much appreciated.”
When asked to make a case for the bridge to those beyond South Baldwin County in Alabama, the Orange Beach mayor cited the area as a “tremendous amenity” for the state.
“These are Alabama’s beaches,” he replied. “They are a tremendous amenity. They are a jewel for the state of Alabama. Thirty-plus percent of everybody that comes to Orange Beach, Gulf Shores are from the state of Alabama. We’re the stewards of those beaches. We know infrastructure-wise, we are lagging for the growth and the number of folks that are coming. If they want this to continue to be that jewel and that amenity we’re proud of, they’ve got to invest in their beaches and the infrastructure of their beaches.”
Based on his knowledge of the traffic patterns of the area, Kennon argued the option offered by ALDOT was the best to address current and future traffic.
“I’ve been involved with public service down here for 20 years,” Kennon said. “I know our traffic patterns. I know them better than anybody. This bridge will help. It will make a difference for the future. We will eventually get a road through the [Gulf] State Park at some point. We will be flowing traffic significantly quicker, faster and congestion on Canal Road, no doubt in my mind.”
According to ALDOT, bids could begin to come in for this project as early as Spring 2019.