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Orange Beach pivots for better toll-road revenue

Orange Beach now has money in the bank, and on November 1st, the mayor expects the council to approve paying off that money they borrowed and loaned to the bridge company.

For many, when the weekend comes, it's a mad dash to the beach. And when the weekend is over, it's a mad dash home. And that makes this bridge and these toll booths very busy. And not just on the weekends.

For the people who live on the Alabama Gulf Coast, the Toll Bridge on the Foley Beach Express is their quicker connection with the mainland, shaving off miles and minutes otherwise spent crossing the Intra-coastal waterway at Gulf Shores to the west.

"We were stuck with a toll bridge we had no control over the toll, and it is an impediment to moving traffic in and out of Orange Beach. So we really need to do something about it."

Mayor Tony Kinnon says the contract between the city and American Roads, the company that owns the bridge, was written before the current administration came into office.

Here's how it works:

Orange Beach borrowed money, then loaned American Roads $12 million dollars to operate the bridge. The city would pay back that borrowed money in ten annual payments of $1.2 million each.

In return, Orange Beach would get a certain amount of money for each car that crosses the bridge, currently 30-cents-per-car. It could have been a money maker for Orange Beach, but shortly after the contract was signed, the county went into the big recession.

Traffic slowed to a trickle. Then the BP oil spill kept even more tourists away. But not American Roads, says the mayor. He says they increased the price of the toll, eventually to the current $7 round trip. But Orange Beach? Still 30-cents-per-car.

But times are better for American and for Orange Beach. The tourists are back. Traffic is, too, and starting to back up. Another bridge is needed and Orange Beach officials believe they know how to get a new span and a better deal.

Orange Beach now has money in the bank, and on November 1st, the mayor expects the council to approve paying off that money they borrowed and loaned to the bridge company. Then that 30-cents-per-car becomes debt free income for the city. That money, plus BP Oil Spill Money, match state funds and other sources should be enough for the city to build a bridge of its own. The mayor says they'd prefer American Roads to build the span and reduce the toll.

Nil Belitsky of American Roads says his company has already started engineering work aimed at expanding the bridge toll plaza to speed up traffic flow, along with implementing technology that will allow people to pay for the toll without stopping.

As for building a new bridge, he says don't expect a new structure anytime soon, but they're working to come to an agreement with the city and state, and could have an announcement before the end of this year.

American Roads already gives locals a discount on the bridge tolls, but will pressure from the city create lower tolls for everyone? They'll likely cross that bridge when they come to it.

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