By John Mullen

Finding innovative solutions to ease traffic headaches during the crowded tourist season seems to be a trend in South Baldwin County.

In May 2016, the state Department of Transportation “repurposed” existing pavement on westbound Canal Road in Orange Beach to squeeze in an extra lane. It made the mad rush north at check-out times on Saturday and Sunday a tad more tolerable.

But when traffic turns north off of Canal, it faces a single lane heading north on the Foley Beach Express Bridge.

Now American Roads, owner of the bridge in Orange Beach, will repurpose the roadway on the span to add a third lane.

“Right now, we have two 12-foot lanes and now we will accommodate three 12-foot lanes,” American Roads CEO Neal Belitsky said. “We’re not going to squeeze people out. The bridge is wide enough to do what we want to do. There’s a very wide shoulder on each side. The shoulders will get a little smaller.”

His company is going to spend $5.3 million on a three-phase project that includes the bridge lane realignment, adding two toll lanes and widening the southbound approach to the toll plaza. Belitsky said 3.5 million cars came through in 2016 and he expects an increase when 2017 numbers are tallied.

“The goal is to have everything completed by the middle of May 2018,” Belitsky said.

The new center lane will accommodate traffic both ways, with the direction dictated by traffic flow. Along with the added lanes at the toll plaza itself, the company is upgrading technology that will allow the gates to be continually open.

“There will be cameras on the lanes and we’ll be able to toll by license plates,” Belitsky said. “Folks can go through and if they are enrolled with us they’ll be charged by their license plate. If they don’t have an account with us, then we will invoice them and send them a bill for the toll.”

With the new system, Belitsky says, the plaza will be able to process 3,000 cars per hour, up from 1,000 now. Belitsky said the Alabama Legislature OK’d the companies’ access to the license plate database to enable this program.

When the bridge was first built, the city agreed to give the struggling bridge company $1.2 million a year for 10 years — 2004 through 2013. During that time, the city was paid 10 cents per car if the number of cars was less than two million, 21 cents if traffic was between two and three million, and 36 cents per car if traffic exceeded three million. Of the $12 million paid out, the city got back about $6 million from the fees.

Starting in 2014, the city began getting 30 cents per car for 20 years with no sliding scale on the number of cars coming through. The city would have an option to buy the bridge at the end of 20 years. The city could also decline to buy the bridge, but continue receiving 30 cents per car for 30 more years.