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A big crowd showed up to hear about transportation and education issues.
November 9, 2017 – Orange Beach, AL (OBA) – Mayor Tony Kennon issued a message of hope during a Nov. 7 town hall meeting on transportation and education issues in Orange Beach.
Hope for not one, but two new bridges over the Intracoastal Waterway, one west of the Foley Beach Express and one over Wolf Bay at Alabama 161 in the heart of Orange Beach.
More than 1,000 people came to hear the message during the meeting covering transportation issues and the new 7-12 school planned for Orange Beach with an eye on opening for the 2019-20 school year.
On hand for the meeting were officials with the Alabama Department of Transportation as well as leaders of the Baldwin County Board of Education.
Perhaps causing the most stir is the possibility of a Wolf Bay Bridge with the south end at Doc’s Seafood Shack – but keeping the iconic restaurant intact – and private land on the north side. No timetable was given for beginning construction or a completed bridge.
A rendering of the proposed Wolf Bay Bridge.
“We’re serious about the Wolf Bay Bridge,” Kennon said. “We passed a 2 percent lodging tax increase and there is a reason we did that. Federal and state money for bridges is few and far between. We know we’ve got to move traffic on this island. We know that we need to grow to the north to allow growth to happen over there and take some of the pressure of the island south of the canal.”
Early work has already started on the bridge, Kennon said, with the cost estimated at between $40 million and $60 million.
“We’re planning on beginning preliminary design, conceptual design and environmental right of way,” he said. “It would connect through Mr. Barber’s property up to County Road 95, then you could go west on County Road 20 to the expressway. The goal will be that Mr. Lawrenz and Mr. Barber will annex their property into Orange Beach. That will give us the ability to move north and see some growth.”
Answering a question from resident Bill Jeffries, ALDOT Director John Cooper said his department would have no way or reason to block a bridge over Wolf Bay funded by the city.
Kennon said other projects which could be paid for by the lodging tax increase include the evacuation parkway, formerly called the cross-island connector at $80 million, beach renourishment at $20 million and dredging Perdido Pass at $5 million.
Other improvements the city would like to address in the future include sewer upgrades, two fire stations, justice center expansion, a new civic center, public works relocation, city marine docks, city hall expansion and Coastal Resources expansion. In sports and recreation facilities the city would like to see expansions at the aquatics/tennis center, recreation center and the Sportsplex.
Canal Road project and bypass.
Adding the fifth lane – the second eastbound lane – is slated to start in early 2018 and Kennon hopes it will be completed by the spring of 2020. It will be done in two phases with design and moving utilities taking about one year and the final paving also about a year.
“It’s going to be a free-flowing southbound two-lane turn there in front of Tom Thumb,” he said. “We will have an improvement at that intersection for a northbound lane.”
An addendum to that project is the hope for a part of that project is a road that would leave Canal Road at Pep Boys and go to Alabama 161 south of McDonald’s.
“This is a future project we’re looking at, call it a bypass” Kennon said. “This is two free-flowing east and southbound lanes into 161 which will take the traffic out of the intersection of 161 and Canal Road. This will make the area (north) somewhat of a town center and a local destination.”
That’s not the only project on the city’s wish list for Canal Road. Officials would like to see a center turn lane from Alabama 161 east to Wilson Boulevard. It could also include a roundabout in front of the Coastal Arts Center of Orange Beach. The plan would encourage those heading to Doc’s to proceed to the roundabout and turn around there to get back to the famous seafood shack.
“The roundabout will allow us to restrict turns along the most westerly part of Canal Road,” Kennon said. “What happens is when someone stops to make a left turn, it backs up into the intersection. Hopefully, that’s going to be eliminated.”
This one, like five-laning Canal Road, seems to be a done deal. Kennon and other officials are happy a high school-middle school is coming to town.
“We think it’s going to be a great addition to our community, one of the best things that could happen to us in our opinion,” Kennon said.
Councilman Jeff Boyd said he’s gotten questions about the safety of the site where the city’s old wastewater plant was located.
“That was a Class A type of facility which meant it handled residential waste,” Kennon said. “There’s nothing there that would create a toxic or hazardous waste site or issue. There will be a phase one environmental study done by the school system that will reinforce what we are saying. I don’t think we’ll have any issues with whatsoever with toxicity on that site.”
Residents were also concerned about the fate of Orange Beach students if Gulf Shores is able to start its school system for the 2018-19 year. Baldwin County Superintendent Eddie Tyler was on hand to answer questions.
“Right now, if you go to Gulf Shores High School and you live within the city limits, that’s where you go,” Tyler said. “If you live outside the city limits, all of those things will be negotiated whenever they get a school. It’s all negotiated. We might want some things and the City of Gulf Shores say, no we don’t want that. It’s going to be a back and forth.”
Canal Road traffic at the new school is a concern that has also been raised, but Kennon believes the city has a solution.
“We’re in the process of acquiring Powerline Road right now,” he said. “We will pave it, finish it out so it will create a loop to the sewer plant and to the 10 acres we own next to the sewer plant over to the ballparks and to the school.
“Traffic to the school will take absolute priority.”
The city would also like to see a new trail beginning where West Oak Ridge Drive ends to the new school. Part of the new trail would cross land owned by Bay Minette First Baptist, but Community Development Director Kit Alexander said the owners have said they are willing to grant a right of way. The rest of the property the trail would have to cross land owned by either the city or the state.
The state's proposed bridge at top.
This is the same bridge proposed back in 2015 also at a town hall meeting is located about 1.5 miles from the Foley Beach Express toll bridge. It was planned as the end of a new road from south of County Road 8 and from the Foley Beach Express to County Road 4 and eventually to the Gulf Shores Business and Aviation Park.
Kennon said the project will include five-laning Canal Road from the new bridge’s south landing to The Wharf.
Neal Belitsky of American Roads, operator of the toll bridge, said he questions spending $30 million on a new bridge when improvements his company is making to the toll bridge will improve traffic flow.
“Recent expansion has already addressed much of the problem with the backups heading north,” Belitsky said. “Why spend $30 million when the problem is currently being addressed? With the scarce and limited tax dollars at the very least, why don’t we give the new lane and other measures a chance with proper evaluation and study?”
The U-turn system will be extended from where it ends at Walmart to the Romar Beach Access with work starting this year with an eye on completing before next summer.
Residents questioned the blind-spot created at beach road and Loop Road used to access Walmart and Winn Dixie. If there are vehicles lined up in both directions to make U-turns, each is blocked from seeing oncoming traffic by the other.
“We are taking a look at Loop Road and possibly a light there with a left turn to give a little bit easier egress getting out of Walmart and Winn Dixie and getting back to 161,” Kennon said. “There are some reasons they took that light out but they are going to look at it to see if it’s feasible to put it back in.”
The temporary light there now will go away and the permanent U-turn will be put in 800 feet further west, City Administrator Ken Grimes said.