Residents came out in droves to an Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) public hearing for an additional bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway earlier this month. The proposed bridge would supplement the area’s two existing bridges, one designated for Alabama Highway 59 and the other a toll bridge for the Foley Beach Express.
The bridge is expected to act as a spur from the Foley Beach Express and connect to Canal Road, which runs adjacent to the southern shore of the Intracoastal Waterway.
A couple of hundred residents packed into the Gulf Shores Activity Center for ALDOT’s hearing, which was designated as an information session and opportunity to voice opinions about the proposed project.
Protest and opposition to a proposed project is what typically yields crowds that large. However, at this event most came to voice their support for the Waterway Boulevard Extension newly designated by ALDOT.
To be clear, there were some residents who came to voice their opposition to the project. Opponents argued valid reasons — environmental concerns, disruptions to their lives with a new influx of traffic and questions about whether this bridge will resolve tourist-season gridlock in South Baldwin County.
Otherwise, the overwhelming majority of people in attendance, including Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft and Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, supported the project.
Beyond the local contingent of detractors, a campaign outside South Alabama has targeted the project, questioning its prioritization over other projects throughout the rest of the state. Dubbing it the “Bridge to Nowhere,” the campaign has depicted the project in TV and radio ads — running in the Birmingham and Huntsville markets — as a wasteful boondoggle even locals didn’t want.
Prominent politicians throughout the state have jumped on the “Stop the Bridge to Nowhere” bandwagon, including State Auditor Jim Zeigler and former State House Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford, who recently lost his bid for the State Senate running as an independent.
Imagine this scenario: You’re stuck in traffic on Interstate 65, and a radio commercial comes on questioning the need for this project. The ad points out that ALDOT has so many other traffic concerns to address but is set to build an “$87 million” bridge for beachgoers. Listeners are left with the impression South Alabamians will have an easier trip to the beach while the rest of the state suffers through hours of traffic each week just to get to and from work. The outrage!
You must admit a cynical marketing campaign of demagoguing beachgoers is an effective ploy, but it is a throwback to the geographic tribalism that has plagued Alabama’s politics since the end of Reconstruction.
In addition to critics who question the project’s cost-effectiveness, there are also the owners of the nearby privately owned toll bridge to the east. A new, free bridge created as part of a spur to the existing Foley Beach Express route will likely reduce tolls collected at the existing bridge.
In all, the opposition to this project is legitimate and formidable.
However, if you are a believer in representative democracy and the will of the people, it will be difficult to oppose this project.
On the surface, it appears the locals of South Baldwin County are in favor of it. Two of the area’s most prominent elected officials, mayors Craft and Kennon, want to see it succeed. And the vast majority of residents willing to come out to what should have been a mundane ALDOT hearing on a chilly November Thursday night were also in favor of it.
The issue has not been polled, but based on anecdotal evidence it appears the bridge project enjoys robust support among the residents who live full time along the eastern half of Alabama’s coastline.
OK, but why should the rest of the state go along with this, especially given there are so many other needs around the state? It’s not just a matter of rewarding residents with expendable income for a vacation with easier access to the beaches.
That’s a part of it, and it should be. The tourist economy in Alabama is a source of tax revenue for the state’s coffers. Taking care of visitors who want to spend money in Alabama — be it Fort Morgan or Fort Payne — should be a priority.
Another aspect is public safety. If Alabama is going to maintain a viable beach destination on the barrier islands, access to and from the island is a necessity.
There is a legitimate debate to be had as to whether this is the right solution, but the answer to that question has apparently already been determined by the people who live there and the leaders they have elected.
As South Alabamians know, and northern neighbors may recall, the state failed to use the BP oil spill settlement funds for their intended purpose: Gulf Coast restoration and improvement. Instead, the Legislature spent the funds owed to the Gulf to meet budget shortfalls — funding Medicaid and paying off state debt.
The old BP oil spill parlor trick makes the argument these residents are somehow pulling a fast one on the rest of Alabama with a so-called Bridge to Nowhere farcical.
If taxpayers in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach think this is the correct solution to alleviate some of the traffic woes plaguing the area, let them have the bridge. However, let it be known there can’t be any do-overs if the bridge doesn’t achieve its desired outcome.
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