The proposed extension of the Baldwin County Beach Express received a setback when voters rejected a constitutional amendment Nov. 8 that would have let the Baldwin County Commission create an authority to pay for it through a toll road.
But in the same election, a different statewide amendment barely passed that would allow a similar authority to be created for a new bridge on Pleasure Island. Local Amendment 3 suffered from voter misunderstanding, Baldwin County Commissioner Charles “Skip” Gruber said.
“A lot of people don’t understand what was to happen with that,” he said. “They didn’t know what it was going to be used for and how it was going to be done and everything else.”
The wording of the amendment didn’t say so, but the goal was to create a road and bridge authority that would have financed the extension of the Beach Express from Interstate 10 to Interstate 65, most likely making it a toll road, Gruber said. The project’s estimated cost is $200 million.
According to a proposal previously submitted to the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, the road would run 24.5 miles from the existing tie-in to I-10 near Rosinton to 1.85 miles northeast of the I-65 interchange with State Road 287. It would complete the Beach Express from Orange Beach to I-65, offering an alternate route for tourists and a new hurricane evacuation route for everyone.
Gruber said the project didn’t receive money from the BP oil spill settlement. The county can’t afford to do it alone, but people don’t want to raise taxes, he said. Making it a toll road would mean that only people who use it would be paying for it. “If you don’t want to drive the road and pay the toll, you don’t have to get on it,” he said.
Gruber said commissioners wanted more detail put into the wording of the amendment, including how the members of the authority that would finance the project would be selected. The project is “shovel ready,” he said. The plans are drawn up, the environmental and federal interstate access permits have been obtained and the next step is purchasing rights of way.
The amendment did not commit citizens or the county to a toll road, Gruber said. Rather, it gave the commission that option. Gruber said he thinks the commission will have to take the issue back to the legislative delegation to try again.
In Baldwin County, both Local Amendment 3 and Statewide Amendment 12 were voted down by the same margin, 52 percent against, 48 percent in favor. But statewide, Amendment 12 squeaked into the Constitution by a margin of 50.64 percent to 49.36 percent in favor, out of about 1.2 million votes cast.
Amendment 12 allows municipalities in Baldwin County to create their own authorities. In Orange Beach, that’s one source of possible financing being eyed for a new bridge.
“We have no plans to use it right now at this time,” Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said. “Wolf Bay would be the No. 1 choice, yes. Now if there is a bridge to the west, that would be the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach city limit, that is a possibility as well. That would be much less expensive, but it may not be as efficient. So there are two options there available to us.”
A new bridge, like the Beach Express, would reduce the heavy summertime traffic into Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Fort Morgan as well as provide another evacuation route for the part of Baldwin County that must evacuate first when tropical weather in imminent.
Kennon said the amendment gives Orange Beach an option if the state won’t build a bridge and “creates leverage” with the current company that operates the Beach Express toll bridge. As for how two similar amendments ended up before voters in the same election, Kennon said the situation created confusion.
“To be quite honest with you, I paid no attention to what the county was doing,” he said.