Joseph Emerson: A local perspective on ALDOT, Pleasure Island and the Bridge to Nowhere

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Dearest Residents of the Great State of Alabama, please allow me to introduce myself and tell y’all a story about a bridge to nowhere.

My name is Joseph Emerson, but most everybody calls me Joe. I am a 25 year resident of the City of Gulf Shores, Ala. My folks relocated to our family home in south Baldwin County in 1995; a mere 36 hours ahead of Hurricane Opal. Most of you know of this beach community or have at least heard of it. Gulf Shores is a small town situated on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. To our west, the historic Fort Morgan peninsula. To our east, the beautiful city of Orange Beach. With their numerous, towering  condominiums and inland waterways leading to the Gulf, Orange Beach has become a first-class resort town for the everyone in the United States and farther.

Both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are independent municipalities, but the two are very much tied together historically, socially and economically. Little known fact, we are actually a small community down here with less than 18,000 full time residents living in the entire Gulf Shores/Orange Beach area. We locals sometimes fondly refer to this place as “Pleasure Island.” 50 years ago, that name came about because of the the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) running though the City of Gulf Shores and along the Northern shoreline of Orange Beach.

We have always tried to maintain a small town atmosphere here, but these days we annually host upwards of 6 million visitors to our beaches. Those visitors end up spending over $4 billion dollars each year while on vacation here and the tax dollars generated on this 40 miles of sand help to power the state in the form of usable tax revenue.

As you can imagine, it takes a lot to keep this place going. Infrastructure is a major concern to the folks that live and work here. In fact, improvement of roadways and evacuation routes (in case of hurricanes) is the top priority that residents of the area want our elected officials to address. Traffic is constantly bumper to bumper in certain parts of the island,  with drive times being as much as 15 minutes per mile in certain areas of Orange Beach during the dog days of summer.

Frustrating is the nicest way to describe the feeling most of us have in regards to Canal Rd. east to Orange Beach Blvd. As our popularity as a resort destination grows year after years, so must our infrastructure to accommodate that growth. Being that we are an “island” it is extremely important to develop our lands with intelligent, long-term planning practices while paying extra attention to the potential environmental impact of any projects in order to protect the fragile ecosystem that makes this place so special.

Unfortunately, not all folks share this sentiment.

In November of 2015, the local news announced a bridge project to be built near the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach city limits. The creators of this project boasted that it would create a way to move traffic more efficiently on and off of Pleasure Island. Instantly, folks were excited to have a potential solution to the traffic problems on Canal Rd in Orange Beach and Highway 59 in Gulf Shores. Unfortunately, after a review of the plans, it became quite clear that the proposed bridge (located 1.1 miles west of the toll bridge and 4 miles east of the Highway 59 Holmes bridge) would do little to relieve traffic. In fact, with no viable option to connect this bridge (Intracoastal Waterway Bridge) to the beach highway,  it would do exactly the opposite of help. It would literally increase the amount of traffic on Canal Rd.

The questions came to me quickly. How does this project help our dire infrastructure problems especially on Canal Rd? Why would ALDOT suggest this particular spot for a bridge? Who would even think that was a good idea?I started digging into the planning and funding of this project in the same week of its announcement only to find huge gaps in funding and a suspicious trail of land acquisition and proposed route maps. I felt I had to make this information more prevalent to the public eye to help create transparency about where the then proposed $30 million in tax dollars were being spent.I created a grassroots social media campaign and named it “End the #Bridge2Nowhere.” To date, our Facebook based group has over 2,000 (and growing daily) members sharing information with each other and the world concerning the building of this bridge and its associated projects.

Traffic flow from Highway 59 to Orange Beach has been a constant talking point for ALDOT and the City of Gulf Shores when explaining their “necessity” for the Intracoastal Waterway Bridge and Roadway project.

The head of ALDOT, John Cooper, is quoted as saying, “over 60% of the traffic over the bridge (Holmes) makes a left turn”. Thats indicating that said traffic is going to Orange Beach. The Gulf Shores City Administrator Steve Griffin is quoted as saying, ” In talking with State Park officials and ALDOT about the Holmes Bridge, we’ve found that 24% of all traffic going across the Holmes Bridge is actually going to Orange Beach or the State Park”. In yet another meeting, City of Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said that; of 50,000 cars over the Holmes Bridge daily, 20% of them are heading to the East (toward Orange Beach).

Wait a minute… 60%? 24%? 20%? What’s the correct amount? What is the real number? I attended multiple meetings from city council to regional planning committees. At every meeting I asked to see the (public record) traffic studies that justified the necessity of the ICWW Bridge. At every meeting I was told, “we dont have those numbers” or “those studies are not readily available.” But now I have found out that as of 4/24/18, ALDOTs John Cooper has testified in court under oath that NONE of those traffic studies were ever even conducted. They simply LIED and made up these numbers.

See for yourself.

Multiple projects have been suggested to alleviate the traffic onto the Holmes Bridge. One suggestion  was adding more lanes to the Holmes bridge. Another was to persuade the Baldwin County Bridge Company (toll bridge) to add additional spans to ease traffic. For one reason or another those alternatives just were not sufficient for Gulf Shores so they began pushing for this new project.  But, in a letter dated April 29th, 2016 Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon wrote to American Roads (parent company of Baldwin County Bridge Company) acknowledging that the Governor of Alabama, ALDOT and City of Gulf Shores know the proposed ALDOT bridge project is unnecessary when other alternatives are considered.

To date, there has been little to no public involvement in the planning or design of this intracoastal roadway and bridge project. People living along the proposed routes, when I tell them the plans, are stunned that they haven’t heard about it. They are also very upset that elected officials would not tell them about a project this size before the construction begins. Multiple times at the meetings I attended various representatives from ALDOT or the City of Gulf Shores have stated that there have been meetings where all of these projects were openly discussed. But in the 4/24/18 court hearing, ALDOT Southwest Region Head Vince Callametti testified that there were never any public meetings conducted regarding this project.

Possibly the most controversial aspect of this project is the land acquisition and ALDOT’s use of eminent domain. Multiple family’s have been forced out of their homes because of condemnation rulings on residential property along the route north of the proposed bridge. Many other home owners face a similar fate west of the bridge on the south side of the ICW. Plans to widen the two lane Canal Rd in Gulf Shores into a four or five lane highway will put at least 10 home owners at risk of losing their houses to road construction with another 15 looking at a major roadway construction just feet from their front door. These are people who have raised children and grandchildren on their bit of land. These are folks who have been running businesses from their homes for years. These are families that bought these properties as an investment in their future. How could such a community as Gulf Shores condone kicking these families out of their homes for this roadway and bridge?

Through researching records of ownership and ALDOT/Corp of Engineers planning maps for the roadway, I discovered that the Intracoastal Waterway Bridge and Roadway project are directly beneficial to current and former elected officials and their families. The City of Gulf Shores Mayor, Robert Craft, is one of those officials. He owns significant amounts of property in the form of a land trust along the northern end of the roadway project. As the roadway is built, those properties he owns will increase in value and become prime commercial and residential real estate. Without this project, that acreage is simply farmland just as it has been for the 25 years I have lived here. Another family, the descendants of former Governor George Wallace have already been greatly compensated in the way of millions of dollars for piece of land locked, uninhabited property along the acquisition route.

This is typical Alabama politics at its worst. Its immoral and unethical.

While were talking money, we might as well bring up the cost of this “Bridge to Nowhere” project. When first announced in 2015, ALDOT’s John Cooper stated that this new project would cost tax payers $30 million. Then I found out later through researching their own maps that ALDOT considered that an underestimated cost of construction. The next figure I found was $87 million. That estimate was to include the bridge and adjoining roadway but not the additional funding for the expansion of Canal Rd west of the proposed bridge ($18 million) and the potential cost of relocation and land acquisitions which may be close to $40 million.
I think given ALDOT’s history of going over budget, $150 million is a safe estimate for the entire “Intracoastal Waterway bridge and Roadway project.” That is FIVE TIMES the original $30 million estimate of cost to the Alabama taxpayer. That’s $150 million for a road and bridge that lead to nowhere. There are literally hundreds of projects throughout this state that are in desperate need of attention where this money could be better spent.
Five years ago these 10 bridges were listed as top priority for repair in the state of Alabama:
  1. Interstate 65 between Second Avenue South and Second Avenue North, Birmingham: Average daily traffic of 136,370 vehicles per day.
  2. Interstate 10 crossing of Halls Mill Creek, Mobile: Average daily traffic of 85,510 vehicles per day.
  3. Interstate 20/59, through downtown Birmingham to U.S. 31: Average daily traffic of 78,675 vehicles per day.
  4. Interstate 10 bridges over the Southern Drain Canal, east of Halls Mill Creek, in Mobile:Average daily traffic of 75,350 vehicles per day.
  5. Interstate 10 over D’Olive Stream near Daphne, Baldwin County: Average daily traffic of 52,690 vehicles per day.
  6. Interstate 10 over Warren Creek, a few miles east of the Mississippi state line, Mobile County: Average daily traffic of 43,710 vehicles per day.
  7. Interstate 20/59 over Aaron Aronov Drive, Fairfield: Average daily traffic of 41,015 vehicles per day.
  8. U.S. 78 (Arkadelphia Road) over Village Creek, Birmingham: Average daily traffic of 39,710 vehicles per day.
  9. Alabama 210 bridge over a stream north of Fortner Street, Dothan: Average daily traffic of 34,500 vehicles per day.
  10. Interstate 65 bridge over Hells Swamp Creek, Mobile County: Average daily traffic of 33,770 vehicles per day.

Are they fixed? What about the 127 other state maintained bridges that are “structurally deficient”? What about the 932 other bridges in the state that are “functionally obsolete”?

When is enough enough? What is the final straw? Is it the fact that ALDOT simply LIED to everyone regarding the necessity of this project? Is it the fact that gross underestimates of costs will leave taxpayers footing an enormousbill? Will it be the complete and total lack of public input which is required by law to be considered? Is it the removal of families from their homes by use of eminent domain while public officials get their pockets lined?

This project will effect every taxpaying citizen of the state of Alabama. The Intracoastal Waterway Bridge and Roadway is a project conceived by lies and misrepresentations, a waste of our hard earned dollars and an insult to the people of Alabama. To build this bridge and road project while neglecting other pressing infrastructure needs is a slap in the face of every person that pays into state tax funds.

Its time to take a stand. It is time to get involved. Write to your Governor Kay Ivey. Ask her why her office supports this project even though it has been proven in court to be based on LIES.

Ivey is running for Governor for the first time this year since replacing Robert Bentley. The election comes in just a few short weeks from now. I think that she should step up and show Alabamians all over this great state that she means business when it comes to transparency and accountability.

So there it is y’all. That’s the story of the Bridge to Nowhere and how an entire state can be swindled by liars in state offices. I hope that by the time you read this that some positive action will have emerged at the state level. I hope when y’all come and visit us down here on the beach you don’t have to sit it bumper to bumper traffic just to get to the place you’re staying. I also hope that Ms Bell on Canal Rd doesn’t have to lose her house to this project like the Perault family up on CR4 already did. I really hope that someone with integrity steps in and cleans house in our state offices to shake this perception that we are one of the most corrupt states in the union. But if none of that has happened, then I hope that you will join the campaign to help us hold ALDOT accountable for this mess.

Find our public group “End the #Bridge2Nowhere” on Facebook. Join us and show that you too demand transparency and accountability.

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6 Comments

  1. Joe, wonderfully presented facts. There is a saying that goes. Figures lie and liers figure . Seems appropriate here. This project is being jammed up the backside of the citizens of Alabama and needs to be derailed by whatever means necessary. These people must be held accountable. This type thing is about the money. Just follow the (Jerry McGuire) money…

  2. Here is my fist concern with this particular bridge. It could get people into the island a little faster, but without a cut through road to highway 182 (beach road) it jams up traffic in Gulf Shores south of the Holmes bridge. My second concern is that in the event of a mandatory evacuation it would do nothing but dump all the traffic on to the expressway headed north causing another bottleneck.

  3. But such a bargain at somewhere between 30 and 85 million dollars. Not counting bribes and overruns.

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