Photo | Shane Rice (above)
While discussions about the future of the billion-dollar Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project resume after it was shelved by the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) last August, partial funding has been secured for a parallel project in the shadow of Interstate 10 that could prove to be just as significant for pedestrians as the bridge could be for vehicles.
In November, Gov. Kay Ivey announced 16 coastal Alabama projects that will share $28 million in grants from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006 (GOMESA).
Perhaps most notable was a $7.5 million grant for a new boat launch on the Intracoastal Waterway in Baldwin County, and a $4.4 million grant for Mobile County to acquire 146 acres of waterfront property on the western shore of Mobile Bay. But a $2.5 million grant awarded to the city of Spanish Fort may prove to be the most visible for the roughly 25,000 commuters who choose to take the Causeway rather than the Bayway every day.
Spanish Fort will use $600,000 of its grant to purchase the former Hudson Oil site at the foot of the Tensaw River Bridge from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), and the rest will be used to reinforce bulkheads along the bay and develop the upland property into a park.
Last week, Spanish Fort Mayor Mike McMillan said he hopes it’s the first of several grants the city will seek as it begins to implement its 2-year-old, 31-page Causeway Master Plan (CMP).
Initially funded in 2015 for $45,000 — 80 percent of which was federal money provided by the Eastern Shore MPO — the CMP divides the Causeway into four segments: the Eastern Segment, Pineda Island, the Central Segment and Western Segment, all generally separated by bodies of water. Its vision is to transform the Causeway into a “regional destination” featuring new parks, boat launches, fishing piers and a 5.6-mile, multi-use trail from Spanish Fort to the Tensaw River just east of Battleship Park.
“Aspects of improving the Causeway will relate to promoting the unique identity and character of each segment, but there are also aspects to unify the entire length of the Causeway,” the plan states.
McMillan said the goal is to tie into the 32-mile Eastern Shore Trail, providing a northern terminus at the “gateway” to the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta.
“We had a consultant and a series of public meetings on this and we devised the plan for a walkable Causeway with some parks, green areas, ecotourism and those kinds of things,” McMillan said. “You have to have a plan in place to go after grants, so now we’ll start going after other funding opportunities to further develop the master plan as it’s been designed and approved.”
But he couldn’t immediately place a price on the entirety of the plan, admitting it will change with time and fluctuate depending on “to what extent the whole plan is followed.” The key element to the CMP is the trail itself, which is designed to run along the north side of the Causeway except for at Meaher State Park, where a switchback under the Apalachee River Bridge would allow access to both sides of the road.
Throughout its length, pedestrians would remain segregated from vehicular traffic with bridges of their own and where the rights-of-way narrow nearing the intersection with I-10. The CMP envisions concrete barriers for additional pedestrian safety. Further, it suggests the “potential creation of a diverging diamond at the Causeway and I-10 interchange [to] provide an alternative location for the multi-use trail to cross.”
While it paints a rosy picture of pedestrian access if fully implemented, the plan also recognizes a number of hurdles in the way. “One of the most significant barriers is the right-of-way and road itself,” it reads. “For the length of the Causeway, there are several different conditions that exist between the road and water such as solid terrain, marsh/wetlands or bulkheads. These conditions also result in limited development opportunities along the Causeway because of the lack of solid terrain. As it is currently developed, there are few undeveloped parcels, or parcels for redevelopment potential. Also included as another similar barrier is the extensive floodplain that must be taken into account.”
Complications may also arise from a lack of acceleration or deceleration lanes to most destinations and inadequate signage.
“Don’t ask me to quote you on a price right now, but as you can imagine, it is very substantial,” McMillan said.
For comparison, the CMP offers a case study of the Courtney Campbell Causeway Trail, a recreational trail running alongside a causeway connecting Clearwater, Florida, to Tampa. Opened in 2013, the 10.5-mile trail cost a total of $23 million. One of its two pedestrian bridges, four miles in length, accounted for nearly two-thirds of the entire cost, or $14.6 million.
The CMP recommends Spanish Fort pursue a public/private partnership, “with organizations, businesses and the city working together … plan implementation should be considered as an investment strategy by leveraging capital funding, grants, loans and incentives. Direct participation could also be considered through fundraising and business donations for targeted initiatives or specific areas in the traditional centers or along the corridor.”
It identifies potential major sources of funding including the Alabama Department of Transportation’s Transportation Alternatives Program (ALDOT TAP), U.S. Department of Transportation’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery Grant (USDOT Tiger Grant) and/or the Federal Highway Administration’s Recreational Trails Program (FHWA RTP).
McMillan said in the early ’90s, when Spanish Fort and neighboring Daphne were litigating over control of the Causeway, the court ordered all sales tax revenue collected during the lawsuit to be deposited into a reserve account. When Spanish Fort prevailed, the council put those reserves in a special account for Causeway development. Today, it has a balance of roughly $232,000, a “nest egg” McMillan said could be used for matching grants.
“So we’ve got a financial plan in place,” he said.
Additional development potential
Noting the Causeway is primarily a transportation corridor, the CMP also recognizes its importance as an economic generator for the city and its potential access to natural resources. It doesn’t establish any defined policy, but it does reinforce the city’s desire to limit residential development in favor of commercial uses and “intends to inform regulatory tools,” including zoning ordinances, subdivision regulations and other design guidelines.
Just a handful of residential properties exist on the Causeway, and they have been grandfathered in the city’s zoning ordinance. Meanwhile, there are only a few other privately owned properties that are undeveloped today.
McMillan acknowledged there have been controversial plans in the past for high-density uses of vacant properties, but said it’s the city’s intent to both “protect the nature” and “preserve the beauty” of the Causeway.
Among the most valuable undeveloped property is 11.6 acres between R&R Seafood and Ralph & Kacoo’s. It was the site of a former six-story hotel that was damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, but remained standing until its demolition in 2012. Probate records indicate it was last sold to Ralph & Kacoo’s parent company in 2015 for $1.1 million.
Further east, attorneys Vince Kilborn and David McDonald own about eight acres on either side of the former Drifters bar, where in 2005 they proposed building a 26-story, 300-unit condominium complex modeled after the CMG Headquarters in Beijing.
“It has 800 feet of property on deep water and you can take a boat from there to the Gulf of Mexico,” Kilborn said this week. “It was a spectacular project — if you had a structure high enough there you could see Dauphin Island to the south and about 100 miles north. But Spanish Fort did us a favor and they decided they didn’t want to approve it about the same time the market crashed.”
Still, Kilborn said he remains interested in developing the property, whether it be a similar project or retail.
“The bottom line is there really isn’t any more property on the Causeway that is particularly usable, but historically this piece has housed all kinds of commercial operations,” he said, noting they demolished and remediated a former gas station and motel there. “Eventually, Spanish Fort is going to have to do something with the Causeway because it’s just too valuable, irreplaceable and it’s been neglected. The restaurants seem to be doing really well and there are some small commercial uses. A city with a vision could do something nice.”
Jimbo Meador, 78, has frequented the Causeway for more than six decades. As a certified master naturalist and local historian, he guides two-hour excursions through the delta on his custom boat from a private launch next to the Bluegill Restaurant. He remembers the Causeway when it was just a two-lane road, where you could rent a rowboat for a dollar a day and buy 10-cent Jax beer from Otto’s Fish Camp. Back then, the water was clear enough to spear fish and gig for flounder, but eventually the Causeway impeded the hydrology of the delta, restricting daily tides and periodic floodwater.
“I’m all about protecting the delta and that’s what I preach,” he said. “I’ve seen the demise. When they built [the Causeway] it had the effect of putting a big dam across it and we’ve lost all our seagrass on the Eastern Shore. The delta is like a kidney absorbing all the nitrogen, phosphorus and silt from North Alabama that is being washed down the rivers.”
He admitted the Causeway’s footprint will probably never change, so he’s in favor of any plan to encourage smarter and more resilient development going forward, especially if it introduces more people to the biodiversity and natural resources of the delta.
“There’s a huge amount of traffic now, but there are not enough boat ramps or parking,” he said. “Five Rivers is great and Meaher State Park is wonderful, but a bike trail would be nice.”
Ray Lee once sold shrimp off his boats on the Causeway, but in 1997 he opened R&R Seafood as a market. Today he employs about 70 people in both the market and adjoining restaurant, which was rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.
“It gets better and better for us every year,” he said. “We don’t really do any advertising and most of ours are returning customers. There’s a lot of traffic on this Causeway and it’s working well. We open the deck underneath during crawfish season and we can serve drinks down there so people don’t even have to come inside.”
Restaurateur Pete Blohme jumped into the Causeway market when he purchased Ed’s Seafood Shed in 2018. Compared to his other properties in Fairhope and Mobile, he said it’s been a learning curve to make it work.
“It’s been a slow grow, but in the last quarter Ed’s has shown more growth than any of my other properties,” he said.
Blohme sees opportunity for more recreation business on the Causeway, and didn’t mind the competition from the since-closed Tropics Bar & Grill when it hosted a beach volleyball league and tournaments about a mile east of Ed’s. He’d like to see more tour providers, boat rentals, bait and tackle shops and outdoor venues to host events, “anything we can do to enhance the experience out there because it is one of a kind.”
“Obviously we are in a vulnerable area on the south side and it’s clearly the most beautiful view, but there’s not a lot of land there” he said. “The majority of our parking lot is owned by ALDOT and it floods in a storm. There’s a lot of restrictions because of wetlands, so you need to do a lot of research as far as finding out what you can do and what you can’t do. We’re getting ready to bring fiber optics out to the building because Wi-Fi and phone service and the internet is really sketchy and that’s going to be a huge expanse getting it out there. You have to look at insurance and infrastructure to determine what you can and can’t build out with zoning. You may go in there thinking I’m going to do this and then you cut a different piece of land and you find out I can’t do that. And that’s the problem, you know, so definitely realize you are in a very protected area.”
But he’s encouraged by what he’s seen.
“I think the Causeway is an awesome resource that we have between Mobile and Baldwin counties and we need to do all we can to honor it and take advantage of it and showcase it and say ‘hey, this is a really neat area that we have to share.’”
Should Spanish Fort complete the plan, Mobile County could tie in to continue it farther west, possibly extending it over the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge and connecting it to the Three Mile Creek Greenway and Crepe Myrtle Trail. But McMillan said its implementation will be deliberate and may only be possible with the availability of piecemeal funding.
“We’d love to start at one end and go right through to the other, but that’s not always feasible in the grant world,” he said. “But we want to preserve the Causeway because it is such a jewel … every time I get on [it], when I’m leaving Mobile and cross the Tensaw River, it just becomes a different world.”
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