By John Mullen
ORANGE BEACH — A project first announced by the Alabama Department of Transportation in 2015 for a new bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway east of the Gulf Shores airport has been revived and Neal Belitsky of American Roads doesn’t understand why.
Orange Beach also announced during a Nov. 7 town hall meeting it is moving forward with a Wolf Bay Bridge as well, funded with money from a 2 percent lodging tax.
Mayor Tony Kennon of Orange Beach says the state was serious about building the bridge near the airport in 2015 but went into talks with American Roads to see if they could foster a partnership.
“I think they had every intention of building it and that’s when American Roads decided to negotiate,” Kennon said. “They’ve been negotiating for over a year and they came to loggerheads. There’s no deal to be had, so they went back to their original plan to build that bridge.”
ALDOT will completely fund the bridge that is also part of a new road the state is planning from the Foley Beach Express to the Gulf Shores Waterway Village District on the north side of the canal with ties to the new bridge.
But Belitsky says with the improvements American Roads is planning for the toll booth and bridge at The Wharf, spending $25 million and $30 million for a new bridge isn’t necessary.
“The improvements we are making will triple the capacity of the Beach Express Bridge and dramatically accelerate the flow of traffic,” Belitsky said at the Orange Beach meeting. “We can tell you firsthand from letting the traffic flow freely in the summer that the bridge is not necessarily the problem. It’s the road system south of the bridge including Canal Road and it’s those problems where the $30 million in tax dollars should be spent.”
Additionally, Belitsky said, American Roads would eventually have to build a new bridge as traffic increases.
“When the bridge was built we agreed, and we will continue to honor our commitment, to build another bridge once traffic volumes reach agreed certain levels,” he said.
Improvements include video tolling, which will allow the toll booths to process 3,000 cars per hour, up from the 1,000 it currently handles. Perhaps even bigger is reconfiguring the span from two to three lanes to allow more efficient traffic flow.
“We’re going to have three lanes which we can reverse, so we’ll have two north if needed or two south depending on traffic,” Kennon said.
Southeast Region Engineer Vince Calametti said ALDOT is beginning land acquisition for both the road and bridge and he expects that to take at least a year. He anticipates starting construction in November or December of 2018 and having a bridge in place by 2020.