The Orange Beach Town Hall meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 7 at the Event Center was an opportunity for the public to get first-hand answers on current and future road projects in the city from the likes of John Cooper, Director of the Alabama Department of Transportation, and Vince Calametti, ALDOT’s Southwest District Engineer.
The Town Hall meeting had upward of 1,000 people attend. Many questions and concerns were raised and it was an opportunity for the public to hear the reasons behind the new U-turn system on Perdido Beach Boulevard and also learn about the new bridge that will be built over the Intracoastal Waterway between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
Following are comments made by Cooper during the Town Hall meeting, starting with discussion on the new bridge, which he used as an opportunity to address a statement made by a representative of the Beach Express toll bridge, American Roads LLC, questioning the need for a new bridge.
“First of all, let me say that I have been supportive of the toll bridge and I have worked with them cooperatively for over six years now. Let me tell you why we are building another bridge.
“We've spent, as most of you in this room know, well over $100 million to move traffic down the Baldwin Beach Express. Today, while we move a significant amount of traffic on the Baldwin Beach Express, we have not moved nearly as much traffic as we had hoped to. We believe that is because of the toll. People seem to react negatively to the toll.”
“We have about 8,000 cars a day that drive all the way down the Baldwin Beach Express and turn right at County Road 4. Over 60 percent of the traffic that crosses the bridge on highway 59 … southbound, makes a left turn. As you can imagine a high percentage of that traffic is coming to Orange Beach and so what we concluded is that the toll either had to be lowered significantly. (We were not able to satisfactorily negotiate that toll level with the bridge company.) Or we need to build another bridge that will facilitate traffic and do two things. One, improve access into Orange Beach and, two, allow for the development and the traffic access on the north side of the Intracoastal Waterway, which is very important to Gulf Shores.”
“And so I could talk for 2 hours about the reasons for the bridge. We were not looking for a place to spend $30 million. We do not believe that it will be wasted. We would spend far more on Highway 59 if we have to deal with the traffic that is over there and cannot successfully move traffic to the Baldwin Beach Express.”
“We also believe the bridge will improve access into and out of Orange Beach as well as Gulf Shores. And we believe that bridge is coming into an area where development will continue. Traffic will continue to grow so we believe the bridge is tremendously needed and we believe it is justified. That's why we are pursuing it.”
Perdido Beach Boulevard Median Project
Cooper’s comments on the Perdido Beach Boulevard began with him reading a question from the audience. The first phase of the three-phase project was finished last year.
Do you think with the locals with all of these insane traffic changes, roundabouts, U-turns, cross-over bike lanes, a roundabout on Canal sounds like a nightmare in a mostly residential area?
“Let me try to explain why we're doing what we're doing. The roundabout on Canal is not necessarily an ALDOT project but the reason we reworked the beach road, the reasons are many.”
“We couldn't handle the traffic that we had and that we knew was coming the way things were. We couldn't deal from a traffic standpoint with the same development issues that the mayor outlined for you that the city faces. We face those issues to a significant extent, together. And so we moved to an alternative form of moving traffic. It is a form of moving traffic that has been tried and proven to work in many areas of the country.”
“I had a related question about the safety aspects of that. We're not far enough into it to adequately measure that yet but we do know that in states that have done this, we're relatively new into it, but in states who have done it, accidents in those corridors have decreased from 20 to 45 percent depending on the location.”
“We needed to control speed better. We needed to equalize access. We needed to protect the turns. …”
“We're confronted with this question: How do we move the traffic in the space we have? Historically, the answer has been additional lanes. How would you add additional lanes to beach road? What would we do to the property along the beach road if we did that? Those are some of the questions we confronted and so we sought to find a middle ground. I would say to you that this corridor will not work as we've designed it until we're able to finish, and in consultation with the mayor and his staff and we're doing that in three phases, so as to not be in the midst of the mainline construction during your busy season. And so I would say to you, please wait and see the entire corridor. I think it will make sense. We will continue to make changes, we met with the mayor and his staff this afternoon and one of the things we talked about in that meeting was the need for a left turn exiting the Walmart. I came out of there this afternoon, I can understand that I'm sure that the traffic engineers have a reason for not doing that. Whether it was the potential for traffic buildup on the main road or traffic buildup blocking the out out of Loop Road, I'm not sure. We've agreed to go back and look at that and if we can make that change we will but our goal is to move the traffic as safely and efficiently as we can within the lane structure that we have as far as the beach road. (We’ll) build additional lanes on Canal Road. (We’ll) build additional crossing lanes for the Intracoastal waterway to help the traffic flow.”
“We answered a question that the mayor asked us this afternoon. If we get those things done do we adequately believe we can move traffic on the island? We do. We believe if we can get the 5 lanes on Canal Road. If we can get adequate lanes across the Intracoastal. We get the beach road project finished. And we can clear the intersection at 161 so the traffic can freeflow through it, which we can do and we believe we know how to do that. We believe we can adequately handle the traffic on the island.”
Mayor Tony Kennon: “Can I add one thing to that? In a 3-year period, we had 247 accidents in that stretch there from 161 to the west and I think we were told that was the highest number of accidents per that length or that distance of road in the state of Alabama with all things being equal. And, unfortunately, so many of those were head-on or T-bones because of people making left-hand turns across in front of each other. I think over the next few years we will be able to quantify if it made a difference safety-wise anyway. Convenient or not, that's a matter of perspective but if 3 years from now we see we have 100 fewer accidents, than I think it was probably worth it. We'll just have to look at that. But they've been wonderful about trying to fix and listen to us when we've identified things that continue to be problems.”
Vince Calametti: “Adding on to what Director Cooper said and what you said. In addition to those accidents there were 49 injuries. There were four fatalities. There were eight crashes involving pedestrians with six injuries and two fatalities. So one of my questions is: What can be done to correct the traffic changes that were done on Perdido Beach Boulevard? I think we're willing to look at anything and everything that is sent to us, fully, with the idea that safety and moving the traffic efficiently is our main goal so we are willing to look at everything.”
Construction on the second phase of the Perdido Beach Boulevard work is scheduled to begin in mid-November.