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Tourism Director: Agreement on Beach Express Bridge is victory for all Alabamians

When Gov. Kay Ivey announced recently that Alabama had agreed to buy the Foley Beach Express Bridge and eliminate its tolls, you could almost hear a collective cheer from Alabamians across the state.

The announcement is “good for everybody, good for citizens, businesses and visitors,” as Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon put it.

His sentiment captures the widespread approval of the agreement because it is indeed good for everybody. The leaders who made it happen – Gov. Ivey, local officials, the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) and the Baldwin County Bridge Company – are to be commended.

As soon as the agreement is finalized in May, Alabamians and visitors alike will see immediate benefits. 

There’s the obvious benefit of a new, toll-free route to Alabama’s beaches. For more than 20 years, the toll bridge has provided a key link to our beach communities. More than 5.6 million vehicles used the toll bridge in 2023 alone.

Each year, more than 8 million visitors come to Baldwin County. They account for nearly one-third of all visitors to Alabama. The vast majority – more than 6 million – come to Baldwin County to experience our pristine beaches. 

While we encourage these visitors to “leave only footprints,” we definitely want them to leave their dollars. And they do. Our beach visitors inject approximately $8 billion into our economy and support 65,000 tourism-related jobs across the state.

This is especially important to Baldwin County, of course. Tourism is the county’s number one industry, and tax revenues from tourism make up a majority of the budgets for both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. 

But the financial benefits extend far beyond one county. A portion of each communities’ lodging and retail sales tax revenues bolster the state’s Education Trust Fund, meaning schools in every community of Alabama benefit from beach tourism.

In addition to eliminating the $5 toll to cross the bridge, this agreement will also alleviate the long-standing problem of traffic congestion in the area.

When John Cooper was appointed ALDOT Director in 2011, he held a series of meetings in Baldwin County to identify local priorities. Providing relief from traffic congestion along Highway 59 was identified as the area’s top transportation need. This congestion causes long delays for residents and visitors, and impedes emergency responders, access to hospitals and hurricane evacuations.

The Foley Beach Express was designed to help provide quick travel to the privately-owned toll bridge and therefore relieve congestion on Highway 59. However, many travelers used the express to get near the beach but then avoided the bridge because they didn’t want to pay the toll. As a result, the toll bridge has not been a solution to congestion on Highway 59, which has only gotten worse.

Now with the tolls being eliminated, this agreement means the bridge will finally be able to help relieve Highway 59’s traffic woes. This will enhance traffic flow significantly, making travel in the area smoother and easier.

Finally, the agreement includes additional road improvements. As part of the agreement, ALDOT will pursue the widening of Canal Road and upgrade the intersection of State Routes 161 and 180. Furthermore, construction of a second toll-free bridge over the intracoastal waterway continues. When completed in 2026, this bridge will further reduce traffic congestion on Highway 59, improve access to emergency services and make evacuations safer and faster.

It takes a team to achieve such positive results, and this agreement is certainly proof. Led by Gov. Ivey, and including local leaders, ALDOT Director John Cooper and the bridge company, this team reached a landmark agreement that benefits every Alabamian.

When we promote access to our beaches, help people save money and invest in local infrastructure, we boost Alabama’s economy, sustain jobs and give our schools and communities a major win. Good work, team! 

Lee Sentell, reappointed by Governor Kay Ivey in 2022 as director of the Alabama Tourism Department, has overseen tourism revenue growth in the state from $6 billion in 2003 to $22 billion in 2022. This is his sixth term in the Alabama Governor’s Cabinet.

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