The proposed $2 billion Interstate 10 bridge and Bayway project is not the only local road that may be partially funded with a toll, according to a bill filed in the state legislature last week.
State Rep. Steve McMillan is the primary sponsor of House Bill 611, which seeks to establish a toll authority for the Baldwin Beach Express II (BBEII).
If approved by voters in a countywide referendum, tolling would be limited to the new stretch of highway, an estimated $200 million project to extend the existing Baldwin Beach Express from its foot at I-10 roughly 25 miles north through mostly undeveloped timberland to Interstate 65.
Establishing a toll authority would allow the county to finance bonds and put the project on a faster timeline, McMillan said Monday. Once complete, the extension will also serve as a primary evacuation route in the event of an emergency and provide access to the eastern border of the South Alabama Mega Site, 3,000 acres of dormant property the state and county has been marketing to industrial developers since the County Commission purchased it for $32 million in 2012.
McMillan said the bill has been in the works since a similar ballot measure was narrowly defeated by voters in November 2016 by a margin of 52 to 48 percent. That effort was thwarted, he claimed, by a public perception the toll authority would have jurisdiction on all county roads. So the revised bill is written with more clarity.
The official name of the authority, for example, is now “The Baldwin County Toll Road and Bridge Authority – Baldwin Beach Express to Interstate 65 Project.” But as written, the “project” includes the proposed extension as well as “all other necessary supporting roads.”
County Engineer Joey Nunally said as planned, tolling will be limited to the new section.
“The way the previous bill was worded, it put a little fear into citizens that the County Commission could institute tolls on any county road,” he said. “That’s the way people read it but that was not the intent then and it’s not the intent now. We were very careful how we worked that language into this bill so the public would know.”
Nunnally said tolling the existing portion of the Beach Express would be too difficult with the numerous intersections along the route, but the bill is written to consider unplanned roads that may intersect with BBEII after its completion.
The bill will establish a nonprofit toll authority with a volunteer board of directors appointed by the County Commission to six-year terms. The board, which will “adopt, alter, amend and repeal [its own] bylaws, regulations, policies, procedures and rules,” will be responsible for every aspect of the project’s planning, design, financing, contracting, use and maintenance.
The authority may only be dissolved through resolutions of both the board and commission, and only if it does not have any outstanding bonds.
McMillan noted as this proposal calls for a constitutional amendment, it will also have to secure the approval of voters countywide. If passed by the legislature, it will likely be on the November 2020 general election ballot.
If approved, the authority will “have the power to set, collect and enforce the payment of tolls, fees and charges authorized by this act by any lawful means.”
Meanwhile a separate-but-similar bill sponsored by McMillan, House Bill 255, amends the process with which the state provides notice to pay a toll, allows the state to non-renew vehicle registration if tolls are not paid and allows the state to enter into reciprocal agreements with other states to collect unpaid tolls.
“We have to pass both bills for either to take effect,” McMillan said.
Earlier this year, the Baldwin County Commission chose a preferred route for BBEII, generally following an existing logging trail known as Old Brady Road. According to a map provided by the county, the path crosses 54 separate parcels owned by about a dozen different people or corporations. Reportedly, the county received $11 million in Restore Act money for right-of-way acquisition, a process that is ongoing.
Regarding the Mega Site, as of 2016 the county owed $23,775,798 on the purchase. The county treasurer at the time reported a $10,350,000 debt tied to the county’s 2014 General Obligation Warrant and a $13,425,798.99 debt remaining on the $15 million it borrowed from its own oil and gas trust fund.
Initially the county made annual payments of $392,790 for the General Obligation Warrant, but beginning this year those annual payments jumped to $762,790. The county also pays $1,297,508 per year to the oil and gas trust fund.
Nunnally noted the volume of traffic along the existing stretch of the Baldwin Beach Express is already exceeding projections dated to 2031 and completing a project of the scale of BBEII is unlikely without some kind of public-private partnership.
“We’re looking for grants and state and federal partnerships from a grant standpoint, but the toll is going to be really important for some financial institution to help bond it,” he said.
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