Given the strong opposition around polls for the Mobile River Bridge project, how receptive would Baldwin County voters likely be for a toll to extend the Beach Express?
State Rep. Steve McMillan sponsored a bill passed in this year’s legislative session to allow for a toll authority to pay for construction of the extension of the Baldwin Beach Express from its northern end at Interstate 10 north to Interstate 65.
At the beginning of the debate over tolls on the now-dead I-10 bridge project, State Sen. Chris Elliott seemed to accept the inevitability of a toll, even sponsoring a bill to make construction costs for the I-10 bridge tax exempt in hope it would reduce construction costs. He later became a strong opponent of any toll on I-10, but says there is a big difference between the Beach Express bill and ALDOT’s plans for the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway expansion.
“Whether we move forward with that is going to be up to the people to decide, not a bunch of people in Montgomery forcing it down our throats,” Elliott said.
The bill doesn’t create the toll authority, but it authorizes a vote of the citizens to decide if that’s how they want to fund the new road.
“More importantly, I guess I should say it gives the people in Baldwin County the right to vote on whether or not to establish a toll authority in Baldwin County specifically for, and only specifically for, the northern part of the Beach Express,” Elliott said. “It says the only place the toll authority could really exist and levy a toll would be from the northern terminus of the existing Baldwin Beach Express to I-65.”
And, Elliott says, it doesn’t target working families and businesses who do business across Mobile Bay relying on the I-10 corridor and Bayway.
“Here’s the kicker: You let the tourists really bear the burden of paying for that as opposed to taking limited county resources that could be used on other county roads that maybe need construction worse than that road that regular, everyday drivers use,” he said. “And, here is another free route right next to it with Alabama 59.”
Though he ended up a vocal opponent of any tolls associated with Mobile River Bridge plan, Elliott still believes the Beach Express toll plan is a better fit for the much-needed connection to I-65.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of negative press about tolls right now,” Elliott said. “I think exploring that is a good idea. It’s something the County Commission has asked us to look at. I have supported it in the past and I would support a toll road that linked the Baldwin Beach Express to I-65. I think that’s a reasonable way to proceed with construction on that road.”
A Restore Act grant of about $11 million is on its way to Baldwin County for the specific purpose of buying the land along the route for the extension.
“That’s moving incredibly slowly through the process, but it is moving through the process,” Elliott said. “That’s a good thing to go ahead to have that right of way acquired so when and if the voters decide that this is something they want to do, the county can go ahead and get started with construction on it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Elliott’s bill as enabling toll legislation. His bill was part of a series of measures that dealt with tolling and tax breaks on construction. Elliot’s bill made construction cost for the bridge tax-exempt, lowering the cost of construction.
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