GULF SHORES, Ala. (AP) Gov. Bob Riley’s administration is considering a proposal to build an elevated road through Gulf State Park — the 6,100-acre (2,470 ha) crown jewel of Alabama’s park system — to provide a new link between the beach and routes off the coast.
Speaking in separate interviews with The Associated Press, Riley and Conservation Commissioner Barnett Lawley said the idea was in the preliminary stages and far from a done deal.
But Riley said he asked Lawley’s department to review the proposal because new evacuation lanes are needed to get people off the beach as hurricanes approach.
“We’re looking at the potential environmental impact,” Riley said Feb. 1. “No one has made a commitment on whether or not we are going to fund that or even allow that.”
An environmental leader said a road itself might not pose much of a threat to the park, but its construction could be problematic.
“I would be more worried about the runoff, the rumbling trucks and the traffic from the construction itself,” said Cheryl King, chairman of the coastal branch of the Sierra Club of Alabama.
King said the park provides a rich habitat for heron, alligators, rabbits and fish. But its landscape remains marred by thousands of dead pine trees killed by salt water flooding during Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
Lawley said the GUMBO group, a coastal coalition including business owners and developers, had proposed the road, which he said would be elevated in some way and could be lined by a fence to keep litter out of the park.
The proposal actually predates GUMBO, which stands for the Gulf United Metro Business Organization, according to a member of the group, Herb Malone, president of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“It’s an idea that’s been discussed widely on the island for years and through different administrations,” he said. “I know there is a commitment to following the most environmentally friendly route.”
Among concerns to be considered, Lawley said, is whether park wetlands could survive in the shade underneath the road, which would be more than a mile (1.6 km) long and may follow the path of an old, closed road in the park.
“The last rendering I saw it was over on the eastern edge of the park. Most of it wasn’t even on the park property,” Lawley said. “We’re not talking about something running the width and length of the park.”
The road could connect with Canal Road in Orange Beach near a massive condominium and retail development being built along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway at the Foley Beach Express toll bridge. Riley said the main idea of the road was to provide a hurricane evacuation route, however, not to link the beach with the development.
Eventually, the toll road could be extended several miles to Interstate 10 and about 25 more miles (40 km) to Interstate 65.
“The biggest problem I’ve got down there is that I’ve got to get people to I-10, I’ve got to get people to I-65,” Riley said. “What I’m looking at is any way we can expedite that bottleneck that exists in the lower part of the state right now.”
Lawley said he would likely meet with Transportation Director Joe McInnes to discuss the road, but the project had yet to get as far as the highway agency.