State and local officials are launching a campaign to support the toll plan for the Baldwin Beach Express II (BBEII), a local amendment that will appear on the General Election ballot in Baldwin County in November. The plan, which would extend the Baldwin Beach Express roughly 24 miles north between Interstates 10 and 65, also will provide additional access to the undeveloped Baldwin County Mega Site.
State Sen. Chris Elliott explained during the launch of the “Choose2Coalition” Tuesday that unlike the highly unpopular toll plan for the Interstate 10 Bridge and Bayway project, the BBEII toll will be restricted to the length of the new roadway and would primarily be the burden of visitors to the area.
“The Baldwin County Commission has spent several years laying the groundwork for this project. Now we just need funding to support it,” he said. Funding details or a proposed toll have yet to be disclosed, but the project is estimated to cost $200 million. Some groundwork and rights of way acquisitions have already been completed.
State Rep. Steve McMillan sponsored a companion bill in 2019 to create a nonprofit toll authority that will “adopt, alter, amend and repeal [its own] bylaws, regulations, policies, procedures and rules” and will be responsible for every aspect of the project’s planning, design, financing, contracting, use and maintenance. The volunteer board will be appointed by the County Commission to six-year terms.
A similar measure was defeated by 52 percent of Baldwin County voters in 2016, but McMillan said the new proposal is more defined.
“There was some misunderstanding before because people were under the impression it gave the County Commission authority to place tolls on any road,” he said. “So, this time around we have placed language five or six times in the proposed amendment that limits any powers of the toll authority strictly to the project area.”
McMillan said plans were still fluid, but suggested there may only be a single toll booth on the extension, somewhere around its intersection with U.S. Route 31 in Bay Minette. If approved by voters, McMillan believes board members would be appointed by early next year and BBEII could be constructed in a two- or three-year timeline.
“The users will pay for it — that’s 100 percent — and most of those users will be visitors,” he said. “Local people will still have plenty of access roads and it’s a question of convenience if they pay for it, if they want that immediate access to [Interstate 65]. Otherwise, they could vote to defeat it again and keep the traffic patterns we have now. And I can tell you traffic is building up big time and more and more we need to divert traffic off Highway 59.”
Bay Minette Mayor Bob Wills acknowledged there may be some pushback from business owners along Highway 59 who may not want traffic to decrease. But he believes the long-term benefits of BBEII will outweigh any short-term effects of less traffic on Highway 59.
“Baldwin County has been and will continue to grow rapidly,” he said. “In order to take advantage of the growth and opportunity, it’s imperative we support this initiative. There are some concerns BBEII will take away traffic on Highway 59, but overall growth from added infrastructure will more than compensate for traffic lost in that area and benefit the businesses there now.”
Wills noted both Foley and Loxley have benefited from the added infrastructure of the original Baldwin Beach Express, which was completed more than 20 years ago. Transportation plans have long called for its extension to Interstate 65, but funding has never been earmarked.
The Choose2Coalition is described as “a growing group of more than 50 local businesses, organizations, public entities and elected officials joining forces to support Baldwin County’s future” by promoting Amendment 2. Member Tommy Lee, CEO of Vulcan Inc., said Baldwin County has grown by 45 percent since Hurricane Ivan. And using Hurricane Sally as an example, he suggested BBEII will also serve as an additional evacuation route and ingress for disaster response.
“County data show our evacuations take 18-45 hours — time we do not have under evacuation order,” he said. “Our future is here now. We can either take advantage of this opportunity or let it pass us by.”
Amendment 2 will appear on Baldwin County ballots Nov. 3 along with three countywide amendments to create landmark districts in unincorporated Josephine, Rosinton and Barnwell. If approved, neighboring cities would be prevented from legislative annexations within the districts without the residents’ approval.
There is also a local amendment to transfer some equity cases to the probate court, a measure McMillan said was intended to relieve the caseloads on the district and circuit courts.
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