Photo |Daniel Anderson/Lagniappe

Joe Emerson, leader of the “Bridge to Nowhere” group, said ALDOT “simply lied to fast track this pet project …”

According to records from the Army Corps of Engineers, a $250,000 preliminary environmental study on a road and bridge project in South Baldwin County omitted a vital word:

Bridge.

The word “bridge” does not appear anywhere in the permit issued by the Corps in October for what has become a controversial new $87 million project spanning the Intracoastal Waterway.

The roadway is planned from the Foley Beach Express just south of County Road 8 all the way to and over the Intracoastal Waterway just east of the Gulf Shores airport. Controversy continues to swirl, as at least two property owners are contesting the state’s condemnation of their land and houses and the Facebook group “Stop the Bridge to Nowhere” is drumming up support to halt the project.

Testimony heard last month in the condemnation proceeding in probate court suggests the state never considered whether the project was even in the public interest. Rather, it indicates local interests want to build the bridge simply to compete with the privately owned toll bridge less than two miles east.

One plaintiff, Baldwin County Bridge Co., owner of the Foley Beach Express toll bridge in Orange Beach, raised several questions about the validity of the project that state transportation officials appeared to confirm in their testimony.

On April 19 the Corps said the permit it issued seven months ago is no longer valid because the scope of the project has grown so much a new one will be required. The word “bridge” appears 33 times in the April 19 letter from the Corps. The public has until May 21 to comment and voice concerns over the project before the Corps even begins consideration.

“The previous permit was not rejected,” Assistant Southwest Region Engineer Brian Aaron said. “The reapplication was to incorporate the bridge over the canal with the approved city of Gulf Shores permit.”

Documents show the Corps considered this a significant change in the project that warranted restarting the permitting process.

“The currently proposed project constitutes a substantial increase in scope of the Waterway East Boulevard improvement and extension project previously permitted in October 2017, and therefore is being evaluated as a new permit,” the Corps said.

The change was brought about, the Corps said, by a “request to increase previously permitted discharge of fill material for roadway expansion to include [a] bridge across Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and Cotton Creek.”

Aaron said the reapplication for permitting along the route will not affect the timeline for the road and bridge project.

“We do not anticipate reapplying for the Corps and ADEM [Alabama Department of Environmental Management] permits to delay the 2020 estimated completion date,” Aaron said.

Joe Emerson, leader of the “Bridge to Nowhere” group, received a dressing-down during the public comments portion of a recent Orange Beach City Council meeting. Mayor Tony Kennon and Councilman Jerry Johnson in particular criticized his Facebook page comments challenging the project.

“On Facebook and social media, you keyboard warriors, who are not experts, espousing facts that are untrue, muddy the water and make our lives really difficult,” Kennon said. “I have been dealing with the ramifications of this with calls from Montgomery probably a month to six weeks. It has worn me out trying to correct the misinformation.”

Emerson said he has been against the bridge and road project since it was first announced in 2015 because he believes it is not needed. Emerson said he is also against the widening of Canal Road from The Wharf in Orange Beach to State Route 59 in Gulf Shores, saying it will cause the loss of several family homes.

And while some of Emerson’s assertions are a bit sensationalized and his knowledge of traffic patterns and needs have been called into question, some important assertions were dead-on accurate. Now the lack of traffic studies, condemnation challenges and the pulling of the initial permit have the project mired in controversy, and possibly in jeopardy.

“Straight from the court transcripts,” Emerson said. “ALDOT [Alabama Department of Transportation] has no studies proving the necessity for the bridge project. They simply lied to fast track this pet project and it appears that Gov. Kay Ivey’s office isn’t all for the transparency she seems to be about.”

Those revelations came to light when the Baldwin County Bridge Co. challenged condemnation of its property the state wants to use in the project. ALDOT Director John Cooper testified that Gov. Ivey’s chief of staff, Joseph Pelham, told him to continue with the project. Voicemail and email requests for comment from the governor’s office were not returned.

Estimating southbound traffic

Questioned during his testimony, Southwest Region Engineer Vince Calametti said the only traffic studies done by ALDOT were simple volume counts on the State Route 59 bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway in Gulf Shores, and from those numbers asserted that 20 percent of the southbound traffic turned left toward Orange Beach.

“And as you stated earlier, ALDOT has done no studies to actually prove that to be the case, to actually prove that vehicles are making that detour, correct?” Calametti was asked by Baldwin County Bridge Co. attorney Thomas Haas.

“Other than to the review of the existing traffic numbers that we’ve seen, no additional studies that I’m aware of,” Calametti said. “Nothing other than the patterns that we looked at.”

Those patterns simply studied how many cars coming over the State Route 59 bridge in Gulf Shores turned east. There were no in-depth studies to see how many of those vehicles actually went on to Orange Beach. Calametti confirmed ALDOT could have used several other study methods to see how much of the traffic continued to Orange Beach but did not do so.

“So even though it had many different opportunities and avenues and modeling and alternatives to determine whether or not it was in fact true, this detour was occurring, ALDOT did not do so before committing to build the new bridge, right?” Haas asked. Calametti simply answered, “Correct.”

“ALDOT did not do traffic flow studies to ascertain where the vehicles actually went, correct?” Haas asked. Again, the answer was “Correct.”

Cooper said he based the need for the bridge and road from talking with Baldwin officials and residents.

“I’m relying on conversations with numerous people who are students of Baldwin County,” Cooper said. “I do not have formal studies.”

Also, during testimony at the hearing, ALDOT — again in the words of Cooper and Calametti — appeared to confirm Emerson’s assertion the bridge isn’t necessary.

Calametti said one solution being studied would have cost about $15 million by making improvements to alleviate traffic concerns on the State Route 59 bridge. He said he submitted a letter to ALDOT in support of the project, asserting it would address congestion issues on the state highway.

“There is no reference to a new bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway, is there?” Haas asked about the letter. “No,” responded Calametti.

Specifically addressing Canal Road, Haas asked: “It does not address it at all, that new bridge does not address at all the congestion issues with respect to Canal Road, Route 180?” Calametti again answered, “Correct.”

American Roads CEO Neal Belitsky said during negotiations with Cooper the director told him the bridge wasn’t needed.

“In the course of those conversations … did Director Cooper take a position with respect to whether a new bridge to the west of the BEX bridge was required to address the stated congestion concerns on Highway 59?” Haas asked Belitsky.

“He specifically told me it was not needed,” Belitsky replied.

Up in the air

The now $87 million project — Emerson said the figure has changed several times since 2015 — may now be in jeopardy with condemnations, challenges and permits being pulled.

The scenario is the culmination of a tussle that began in 2015 with American Roads, parent company of the Baldwin County Bridge Co., over a government takeover of the Foley Beach Express Bridge.

“Orange Beach met with them initially and we wanted another span across the intracoastal,” Orange Beach Councilman Johnson said. “We wanted two lanes on, two lanes off, we wanted the toll booth to be expanded by no less than four lanes and we wanted automatic camera technology where you wouldn’t have to stop. And we wanted the toll reduced for full-time residents and Baldwin County residents.”

American Roads wanted no part of that deal but said it would abide by a previous agreement of a new span if traffic volumes topped 6 million vehicles per year. Currently the bridge sees about 3.5 million vehicles per year.

“And they refused to lower the toll,” Johnson said.

Cooper then decided to try his hand at negotiations. In its initial filing challenging the condemnation of Baldwin County Bridge Co. land, the company said Cooper’s demands, had they been met, would have meant handing over the bridge to Orange Beach “at virtually no cost.”

Johnson said at that point talk about restarting the controversial project began in earnest for the second time.

“[Cooper] advised them, ‘if you say no I’m going to build another bridge to the west,’” Johnson said to Emerson at the council meeting.

Emerson said later he believes the situation then deteriorated into an old-fashioned pissing contest, with taxpayers footing the bill for a bridge built out of spite.

“I think that was the original plan and when American Roads called their bluff, then it turned it into a matter of ego, and you’ve got ALDOT and the city of Gulf Shores playing ego games with $200 million of our dollars,” Emerson said.

The throwing about of those numbers led to Emerson being chastised by Kennon and Johnson, who said Emerson was lumping together the two Canal Road projects paid for partially with Restore Act money. The combination of those three projects would total about $140 million, Kennon said.

The latest cost of the roadway and bridge project now under fire was put at $87 million by Cooper during his testimony at the condemnation hearing.

Using the condemnation challenge as its weapon, the Baldwin County Bridge Co. has issued a challenge to the entire project, saying not only is it unnecessary but it goes against previous agreements with the state — including the previously mentioned traffic threshold of 6 million vehicles to trigger another bridge.

As for the condemnation of land owned by the bridge company and subsequent state offer of less than $10,000, the lawsuit claims it is grossly undervalued.

According to the filing, “ALDOT’s offer of $9,750 is woefully inadequate because it does not take into account the difference to the fair market value of BCBC’s remaining property — which includes the BEX Bridge and tolls derived from them — before and after the taking.”

ALDOT attorney Jason Hagmaier said in his opening statement that the matter is a simple decision for the courts, and that Baldwin County Bridge Co. is clouding the waters with claims made against the project.

“The only issue for Your Honor to review is whether or not the state has the authority under the power of eminent domain to acquire this piece of property,” Hagmaier said. “There’s going to be a lot of issues I think they’re going to try to raise. However, again, none of those issues really touch on the authority of the state or the lack of authority of the state to acquire this particular piece of property.”

Haas said the issue is much more important than a simple land acquisition and that ALDOT is ignoring the public’s interest.

“This matter has significant repercussions, not only with respect to the Baldwin County Bridge Co., but the citizens of the state,” Haas said. “And the constitution of the state protects its citizens by demanding that any state sanction taking of their property must be in the public interest and not pursuant to an arbitrary or capricious decision-making process. And for that reason, the taking at issue here fails, Your Honor, because in our view, it’s a falsity based upon a farce. The falsity, Your Honor, is ALDOT’s assertion that it’s in the public interest.”

Both sides were scheduled to present final briefs May 9 to make their case with Judge James Reid, who will eventually rule in the case. No timetable was given for when Reid will hand down his ruling.

So far 14 properties have been condemned along the route for the road, ALDOT’S Aaron told Lagniappe. Three of those have already signed or come to a purchase agreement.

Besides the Baldwin County Bridge Co., to date only one other property owner has contested the state’s offer on their property. Anthony and Patricia Diliberto are pursuing legal action, according to court records. Neither the Dilibertos nor the state are willing to talk about the legal action while it is pending.

Property tax records indicate the project’s first phase will cross land owned by the city of Gulf Shores, Turf Properties, Doyce and Shirley Ellenburg and Anthony and Patricia Diliberto. According to records maintained by the Alabama Secretary of State, Turf Properties is owned in part by Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft.

Additional property owners who could be impacted by the project include Edwin G. Cowdin, Orlanda B. Clark-Perrault, Richard E. Nolte Jr. and Olivia Reagan Coates.

Farther south, the road would travel along the existing Waterplant Road — adjacent to property registered to the family of former Gov. George C. Wallace — and through undeveloped canal-front parcels owned by Charlotte, North Carolina-based Coastal Resort Properties. The route crosses the canal, where the bridge’s south end — depending on its design — may cross over Canal Road before connecting on land owned by Laura Rogers Almaroad.

Wolf Bay Bridge

One project Emerson and his group fully support is Orange Beach’s initiative to build a bridge over Wolf Bay from Canal Road on the south to Sapling Point on the north.

“I really commend what the city has done here with the Wolf Bay project,” Emerson said. “You guys putting on that 2 percent tax on lodging is awesome. It makes the tourists that create the traffic problems pay for the solution.” The additional tax went into effect May 1, upping the rate to 13 percent total with Orange Beach pocketing 7 percent of the total.

The northern landing would be on land owned by David Lawrenz and George Barber of Barber Marina and the Barber Dairy Co.. Private roads on the marina property would be used to take traffic to County Road 95, County Road 20 and to U.S. Route 98.

Kennon said he is on a mission to get this project fast-tracked and is working with the state to solve an issue at the State Route 161/Canal Road interchange near the iconic Doc’s Seafood Shack restaurant.

Restore Act money is helping fund a second eastbound lane on Canal Road from the Orange Beach Sportsplex to State Route 161 to complete the five-laning of the roadway; completion is expected in 2020.

Part of that project includes the new design of the bridge intersection, which currently does not take the bridge into consideration.

“This is a very efficient intersection without the bridge,” Kennon said. “…  it wouldn’t be as efficient if they designed it with the bridge. What we’re trying to do before we get too far along is show them the bridge is an inevitability.”

Kennon said he hopes the state will see the city is committed to building the bridge and work with them on the redesign of the intersection. Orange Beach is fast-tracking more than $3 million on engineering, design, surveying and permitting to assure ALDOT a bridge is coming.

“We’re meeting with ALDOT this week to let them know we are dead serious about making this bridge happen, and can we redesign that intersection to accommodate the bridge and make it more efficient,” Kennon said. “That’s why we’re pushing this.”