The Alabama Legislature has given Baldwin County voters the chance to authorize a toll to finance the construction of a long-dreamed-about extension of the Baldwin Beach Express.
The House of Representatives agreed to a Senate amendment Friday on a 47-0 vote, with 49 abstentions, to legislation governing a proposed toll road and bridge authority. The Legislature on Thursday gave final approval to related legislation to amend the state constitution to allow for its creation.
The authority would have jurisdiction over just one project – a 24-mile stretch of highway that would connect the exiting Beach Express to Interstate 65 northeast of Bay Minette.
Because it is a constitutional amendment, the measure requires approval from Baldwin County voters. The Baldwin County Commission now will set a date for the election. If approved by voters, the new authority would decide on the toll rates.
Ever since public officials conceived of the expressway, the long-term goal was for a route that would let traffic flow freely from I-65 all the way to Orange Beach, avoiding the congestion that grips Alabama 59 during the summer. Officials argue the route not only is important for tourism but would be enormously beneficial during hurricanes to facilitate the quick evacuation of residents in south Baldwin County.
The main holdup has been money. Baldwin County Commission Chairman Charles. F. “Skip” Gruber said tolls are the only way to pay for the extension, projected to cost $200 million.
“We can’t finance that big a project. … If this doesn’t happen, I don’t see any other way to do it,” he told FOX10 News.
Gruber said funds from an increase in the state gas tax approved earlier this year cannot be used for the project because it would be a county road, not a state highway.
But in a county where commuters already are roiled over the prospect of tolls to pay for a proposed Interstate 10 highway and bridge project between Spanish Fort and Mobile, the idea of yet another toll could prove a tough sell.
Lou Campomenosi, president of the Common Sense Campaign, said more tolls could hurt tourism.
“The bottom line for me is … I think what you’re looking at is you’re really in danger of killing the golden goose – and that’s the beach,” he said.
The Beach Express extension is in the early stages. Construction likely is years away.
Gruber said the county has asked from more than $11 million from the RESTORE Act, a federal law related to fines paid by BP after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. That money, if granted, would pay for a purchase of land for the highway.
Gruber said he believes opposition to tolls on the Beach Express will be less than for the I-10 bridge project because it would not hit locals as hard.
“It’s not a commuting route,” he said.
The county and developer Tim James in 2000 built the first stretch, the Foley Beach Express, as a joint public-private partnership in which the county built the highway from Foley to the Intracoastal Waterway, and James’ company build the bridge. Drivers pay a toll to cross the canal.
Baldwin voters narrowly rejected a similar toll authority in 2016. Gruber said some people had expressed concerns that a toll authority would “toll every little bridge that comes along.”
That was never the intention, he said, but he added that the bill makes that crystal clear that its authority would be limited to the Beach Express extension.
“That one project – that’s it. Nothing else,” he said.
Also this week, the House passed a bill to give the state authority to suspend driver’s licenses of people who fail to pay tolls assessed by license plate readers and to enter into reciprocal agreements with other states. The bill passed the Senate 30-0 and the House 63-23, with 14 abstentions. It would take effect Jan. 1, 2024.
Backers argue the bill is necessary to enforce collections on tolled routes that use pictures of license plates, rather than traditional toll booths. That is the method envisioned for the I-10 Bayway project.
Campomenosi said he is against tolls on I-10 but acknowledged that the state has to enforce them.
“If you’re going to have a toll, you have to have something that works … You have to have something with teeth in it to enforce it,” he said.