The current conceptual plan for the Canal Road Bypass in Orange Beach, Alabama.

By John Mullen

October 6, 2019 – Orange Beach, AL – (OBA®) – A bypass plan from Canal Road to Alabama 161 using an undeveloped city street right of way has been on and off the table several times and taken different forms.

As of an Oct. 1 town hall meeting it’s back again with yet another tweak to its configuration. A city presentation gave updates on the bypass, the widening of Canal Road, the Wolf Bay Bridge, Canal Road East, the toll bridge and the Gulf Shores bridge.

 

Full video of Orange Beach Town Hall Meeting

 

“We do have y’all’s blessing now, right?” Mayor Tony Kennon asked Alabama Department of Transportation Southwest Engineer Matthew Ericksen.

Ericksen nodded his agreement but repeated the same caveats and concerns that are raised every time the route is mentioned.

“It has to go through the environment process so it’s a conceptual plan,” Ericksen said. “There will be a public hearing, there will be different options but it’s probably the one that we all favor.”

While on the drawing board, the bypass has yet to be engineered and was not part of the bid in the state’s project to add a fifth lane on Canal Road. That project is underway now.

What the bypass brings is the chance for protracted filings and permitting required to traverse a wetland. Not only does the property have wetlands there are also huge concrete poles for electrical lines along the route.

“I think the state is behind it,” Kennon said. “It’s just a matter of there’s a lot of wetlands there so we will have to go through an environmental permitting, wetland mediation and all that has to be done. But we think it’s absolutely necessary to help us flow traffic off Canal Road.

In July, Assistant Southwest Engineer Brian Aaron said the bypass route would also face scrutiny from the National Environmental Policy Act because of those wetlands.

 “We’re basically going to have to start from scratch as regards to the NEPA process,” Aaron said at the time.

The latest concept has the route going south of the power poles nonstop traffic flowing right onto Alabama 161 south and headed toward the beach. Traffic coming from the Canal Road and Alabama 161 traffic would stop at a new intersection south of McDonald’s and could turn right to head west on the bypass or left toward the beach.

On the north side, there will be a similar intersection of Canal Road in front of the parking lot for Luna’s Eat and Drink and BuzzCatz Coffee and Sweets.

But the exciting news is the fifth lane is moving forward even if there are lane closures and traffic backups as the work proceeds.

“It’s been forever coming but it is actually happening,” Kennon said. “In October, we should actually be seeing roadway construction happening. All utilities had to be moved and that has taken about a year. Water, sewer, gas, Mediacom, CenturyLink, everything had to be moved. It’s a two-year, two-and-a-half-year project but it is actually happening and it’s paid for.

WOLF BAY BRIDGE ON HOLD

Wolf Bay Bridge conceptual design in Orange Beach, Alabama.Kennon says the city has been facing scrutiny because of continued spending on prep work on the Wolf Bay Bridge even though its status is limbo.

“We will continue to pursue the permits,” Kennon said. “The permit is good for 10 years and we’ll know in a year if we have the permits. There was also some chatter on Facebook about us spending money without a contract. That’s technically true but there was a reason we did that.”

One reason, Kennon said, was to be ready to move forward in case federal funding gets passed during subsequent congressional sessions.

“There was talk with President Trump going into office and Congress that there would be an infrastructure bill with the Republican Congress,” Kennon said. “We wanted to be shovel ready and we had to spend that money to get to that point so we were first in line if federal money became available and a short timeline to get the permitting. And everything we paid for is good for years so it’s not like it’s a waste of money. That’s why we did what we did.”

The hold up right now is the lack of a memorandum of understanding between the city and George Barber who owns the bulk of the land on the northern side of Wolf Bay.

“We have no intentions of signing an MOU or a contract just to make a deal,” Kennon said. “If it’s not a good deal, if it’s not a deal that’s in the best interest of the City of Orange Beach then we won’t build a bridge. Having said that it doesn’t mean we don’t need a bridge or want a bridge. That’s a matter of opinion.

“With or without the MOU we wanted to know that if we got all the geotechs, surveying, the symmetry and everything done we would save a year and a half on construction if we go through with the bridge.”

CANAL ROAD EAST

Orange Beach, Alabama, plans to make Canal Road East into three lanes and add a roundabout.Improvements along this route will help alleviate traffic backups from cars wanting to turn left into GTs on the Bay, the senior center, library and art center.

“It will be three lanes from Doc’s to the rec center,” Kennon said. “There will be a roundabout – I don’t know what I think about roundabouts but they tell me they work – at the library/arts center. The reason for that is we’re going to eliminate completely the u-turn or people turning onto Canal Road going east trying to make a u-turn to go back to Doc’s which backs traffic up in the summer into the intersection which is just creating havoc. Now they have to go down to the roundabout to go back to Doc’s.”

Kennon said the new configuration and extra center lane will also help folks getting in and out of city facilities on the road.

“The other reason the roundabout is there it was becoming very difficult to come out of the senior center, library or art center and make a left because there was so much traffic,” Kennon said. “Now all that will enter into the roundabout. Hopefully, we’ll start that at the beginning of next year. It’s paid for with Restore Act money.  We’re going to have to contribute some because of the roundabout.”

TOLL BRIDGE

Almost 4.4 million people came over in 2017 and with a 13 percent increase in 2018. And city officials are expecting an increase in 2019 over 2018 as well.

“People have found out that coming down the expressway in the summer is probably 20 minutes faster or more than coming down 59,” Kennon said. “Wonderful. But at the same time, y’all know what it does to Canal Road. It’s a nightmare. That’s why it is imperative that we get the fifth lane and look at other options to move traffic down Canal Road.”

GULF SHORES BRIDGE

Gulf Shores, Alabama, bridge is being planned by the Alabama Department of Transportation.Plans are still being made for the bridge that state officials were hoping to put out for bid in August but delays in waiting for final permitting from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard will likely push that into early 2020.

“It’s scheduled for a February letting which means it would be under construction around May of next year,” Ericksen said.

Kennon said the bridge has faced some opposition but any bridge would be a big help to moving traffic on the island.

“It is another bridge,” Kennon said. “I don’t know if y’all remember but July 5 several years ago we had a barge bump the toll bridge. We were blessed that there was no real damage but it was shut down for a day or so. I could not imagine life in Orange Beach if we lost that bridge for a year because a barge took out one of the pylons. We need redundancy in bridges. We need four lanes north and south, not two. So, this bridge is very important in my mind.”
 

QUALITY OF LIFE IMPROVEMENTS

During the meeting, Kennon detailed several improvements the city has planned including rebuilding Fire Station One at the city hall complex. It would also include a new administration, fire college and dormitory building to house fire recruits and interns at the Wildlife Center. Fire Station Five must leave The Wharf and the city is looking at moving to Powerline Road.

An expansion of the police department and Justice Center is also planned and will be accomplished by moving the courtroom to a new building to be built west of the current building and using that facility for an expanded police department. Kennon said when the current building went up the city had 25 police officers but now has 60.

The city started its own ambulance service this spring with two new ambulances and is planning on adding a third and hiring nine more paramedics. It is also working with Gulf Shores and South Baldwin Regional Medical Center on a free-standing emergency room planned near Jack Edwards Airport.

Orange Beach is experiencing a boom in not only the single-family housing market but also in government buildings as well. The big one is the new Orange Beach High School and Middle School at Canal Road and William Silvers Parkway. The city is contributing a “state-of-the-art” performing arts center and an athletic complex that will include a covered practice field.

At the Sportsplex, the city is expanding the baseball field to seat 500 and an adjacent softball to 400 seats to accommodate school teams. Kennon said after the city’s contract with the SEC Women’s Soccer Tournament runs out in three years that stadium will be renovated for the schools’ use.

In Coastal Resources, that department is getting a new complex that will include a marina in the old Walker Marina boat basin east of Sportsman Marina on Terry Cove. Also, planned for that same site is an Auburn University Engineering and Research facility.

On the recreation campus, a new gymnasium is going up now and a free-standing adult fitness center is being planned. The recreation center has become inundated with kids taking advantage of the free afterschool program Expect Excellence. It offers training and help in athletics, academics and the performing arts.

The city is also putting together a new program called Continuing Excellence to offer some of the same type of programs to adults.