Plans by Orange Beach to construct the Wolf Bay Bridge is causing a change of plans at the intersection of Canal Road and Alabama 161, state transportation officials said.
“When we looked at that about three years ago, Wolf Bay Bridge was on-again, off-again,” Assistant Southwest Region Engineer Brian Aaron said. The project is one of several in the south Baldwin resort area that will likely be bid out this year, Aaron said. This includes a third bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway.
With the Wolf Bay Bridge seemingly off the table, the Alabama Department of Transportation designed a sweeping turn at one of the city’s most important intersections that would require removal of businesses on that corner such as a Tom Thumb convenience store.
“We just had to kind of make a decision based on the fact that Wolf Bay wasn’t moving forward,” Aaron said.
Land acquisitions were even begun to get the right-of-way necessary to make way for the sweeping, free-flow, two-lane southerly turn.
All that changed when Orange Beach, looking for a way to make the Wolf Bay Bridge happen for decades, finally came up with a way to pay for the bridge and is moving forward. Business owners there recently got the word they could stay.
“We had to get something going and we said well it’s going be tough to find $70 million to build the bridge, and the city kind of agreed,” Aaron said. “Then they got the lodging tax passed and that provided a funding mechanism for them to be able to move forward and fund the bridge.”
“Since then, over the last month or month and a half, we’ve had discussions with the city,” Aaron said. “They are moving forward on Wolf Bay with permitting. They are committed to moving forward on that job.”
But the designed intersection requiring the sweeping away of the Tom Thumb wasn’t functional if a major bridge was added on the north side.
“What it forced us to do was really step back and say once Wolf Bay connects about five years from now, what does that do to this intersection with what we’ve planned with the Tom Thumb?” Aaron said. “And it doesn’t work, so we’ve stepped back and said we don’t need to buy this right-of-way and we need to stop this acquisition.”
With that in mind, the project has now been split into two parts. The first is adding a fifth lane and reconfiguring the tricky intersection with a bridge landing in play. Aaron said the state hopes to start construction on the fifth lane as early as September and it would take a year to complete.
“We’re looking at options and really looking at more of a bypass to the south of the current intersection to make a more free-flow, more efficient intersection that will facilitate that Wolf Bay Bridge connection when it occurs,” Aaron said.
That option on a right-of-way south of the McDonald’s near the intersection has been discussed before and could involve some tricky permitting with nearby wetlands. Aaron said it’s not the only option, but one of several the state will develop and consider.
“We’re basically going to have to start from scratch as regards to the [National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)] process,” Aaron said. “We’re going to have to evaluate alternatives which could include that bypass to the south. As we go through the NEPA process, we’re going to have to look at all kinds of alternatives.”
NEPA, Aaron said, requires taking a long look before deciding how to move forward with the second phase of the project. Whatever it ends up looking like, he said, it will be a drastic improvement from how traffic flows there now.
“I think it’s going to be better for traffic to try and get rid of that nasty intersection that’s always a bottleneck or a problem,” Aaron said. “We’ll get two lanes free-flowing south onto 161 down to the beach road and help facilitate that movement of traffic.”
Aaron said bid letting for the fifth lane on Canal Road, estimated to be about $8.2 million, and two bid lettings on a road and bridge project between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are all expected to happen this year. The first of those projects will include building a roadway south of County Road 4 to a new bridge over the canal. Its estimated cost is about $29 million. Aaron said it will take about two years to finish the project.
“We’re on target to let that one in June as well,” he said. “The Corps permit as well as the Coast Guard permit … we’re just waiting on those permits. Hopefully, those will get issued in that time frame.”
The part of the road north of County Road 4 that will intersect with the Foley Beach Express will be a different letting, and Aaron hopes that can be done in September. The northern part of the project will take about 18 months, he said.
“We still have the latest change from the public meeting where we made the decision to go with the roundabout option,” he said. “There were some additional right-of-way parcels we had to go acquire. We’re currently in a right-of-way phase for that northern section.”
The hold up on Canal, for now, is finishing up relocating utilities to make way for the new lane. Orange Beach acquired the rights-of-way for widening Canal Road years ago with the hope someday it would move forward.
“I’d say we’re roughly 50 percent complete on that, so we’re going to continue to work through that over the next few months,” Aaron said.
One concern was the power poles lining the south side of the road and the expense of moving them. Aaron said they adjusted plans to work around them due to those high costs, estimated to be $20 million.
“Most of the electricity is actually staying,” Aaron said. “There’s only a couple of large transmission poles that have to be moved out of the way. We actually went and got a design waiver so the poles are staying except for just a few of them.
“Most of the utility relocation that is occurring is gas or fiber. Water and sewer relocation will be in the contract for the actual road widening,” he said.
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