By John Mullen
The fix isn’t in. In fact, the fix may be out for at least 20 years.
“We all know that is the 20-year cure for traffic problems at the beach,” Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said. “All I know is we need a road through the state park.”
An alternative north-south road on the island, another bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway and putting a fifth lane on Canal Road will be topics for discussion Tuesday at the Orange Beach Events Center in a town hall forum. Education will be on the agenda as well as questions abound about the planned new Orange Beach grades 7-12 high school and the Gulf Shores split with the county system.
A new road through the state park will be a topic, but it’s probably not a feasible option. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ settlement of a lawsuit with the Gulf Restoration Network over the state’s use of $58 million of BP money for the Gulf State Park Project prevents a new road from being built in the park for 20 years.
“That was part of the settlement that was able to get the lawsuit settled and us moving forward with the project,” DCNR Director Chris Blankenship said.
Kennon said officials from Orange Beach or Gulf Shores weren’t consulted before that settlement was reached. He believes island officials should have been made aware.
“For that deal to be made without any real consultation with the folks who understand and know the traffic at the beach, I don’t think was a wise one,” Kennon said. “I think we are going to evaluate our options.”
A traffic fixe for the busy season, Kennon says, is not a local issue, but one for the entire state, which receives healthy revenue from sales and lodging taxes from the Baldwin County tourist economy.
“This is never about Orange Beach,” Kennon said. “This is about the beaches of Alabama. The fix for the tourist traffic and the growing pains that we have is that road through the state park. It’s just that simple.”
Blankenship said because the settlement rules out a “new” road being built doesn’t mean there aren’t other options.
“There is specific language in the settlement that says there is the ability to expand any existing roads through the park,” Blankenship said. “Nothing in the settlement would preclude any expansion or roadwork on roads or areas that border the park. So, there are some opportunities to do some work down there over the next several years, depending on funding or whatever the other options would be.”
Another possibility is reopening the part of State Park Road 2 that was closed and made part of the trail system during the Gulf State Park Project, Blankenship said.
“There’s nothing in the settlement that would preclude us from being able to do that,” he said. “That is an option for the future.”
What’s not an option, but a sure thing, Kennon said, is the fifth lane coming to Canal Road.
“We’re going to have two lanes heading south that will go through the 161/Canal Road intersection at Tom Thumb,” Kennon said.
Also part of that project is a bypass that would leave Canal Road at Pep Boys and go to Alabama 161 south of McDonald’s. That project will take longer than Canal Road’s fifth lane, Kennon said.
“It is wetland and has some other issues so it’s going to take longer to get that done,” Kennon said. “We’re hoping we have the fifth lane in two years. Through that two-year period, we are going to work on getting the permits and getting done what we need to do. We essentially want to divert all traffic — north and south — down that bypass. There are a lot of other options and variables and moving parts there, but that is ALDOT’S and our goal.”
A new bridge is far from a certainty, but Kennon said work continues to make it a reality. But it won’t be accomplished through any deals with American Roads, owner of the Foley Beach Express toll bridge.
“The bridge company will not build it and we can’t bring ourselves to spend money to build a bridge for the bridge company,” Kennon said. “We’ve negotiated with them in good faith every way we could possibly negotiate. I’m not saying they’re the bad guys. I’m saying we couldn’t make it work. We’re going to talk about potential bridges both east and west of the current bridge.”
State officials planning to attend include ALDOT Director John Cooper and Southwest Engineer Vince Calametti. Baldwin County School Superintendent Eddie Tyler will also be on hand with members of his staff to answer residents’ school questions.