MOBILE, AL (AP) Some decades-old eyesores on state property along the Mobile Bay Causeway are being demolished in a push to turn the highway into a federally recognized scenic route.
Will Brantley of the state Conservation Department’s lands division said vacant buildings, concrete pads and hazardous piers along the shoreline will be removed at eight locations. He expects the work that began earlier this month to be completed by late summer.
Next, the state will decide future uses for the tracts being cleared on the four-lane beneath the Interstate 10 bayway bridge.
Federal flood restrictions approved since some of the old structures were built could make replacing them costly. An environmental group is pushing for more public access or “green space” at the sites to enhance the causeway’s stunning views of the bay and the vast Mobile Delta.
Brantley said there are possibilities for a boardwalk and crabbing or fishing pier to boost tourism.
“Certainly activities like that, we would want to encourage,” he said.
With its 463 acres, the Conservation Department is the largest landowner on the 7.4-mi. highway.
Businesses still holding state leases, including some familiar bait shops, will continue to operate, Brantley said.
The project was funded by a grant from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Coastal Impact Assistance Program awarded during former Gov. Don Siegelman’s administration. The state received $13.2 million in the grant, Mobile County $3.9 million and Baldwin County $3.1 million.
Only a small portion went for the causeway project, however, about half of it going for land acquisition in the two coastal counties for recreational projects, including public access to waterways. The rest is for other related projects.
“The grant is still ongoing. I’d hesitate to put a number on the exact amount we’ve spent,” Brantley said.
Casi Callaway, director of the environmental group Mobile Bay Watch Inc., said the Causeway community has worked on developing a “kind of blueprint” for transforming the roadway into a National Scenic Byway, making it eligible for additional transportation grants.
At least one business owner wants to know whether a scenic byway designation would change the way decisions such as zoning are made.
“Who would have control after that?” asked Barbara Thompson, who owns Trader’s lounge.
She has been in business on the causeway for 30 years, surviving even after Hurricane Frederic destroyed her previous location in 1979.
Thompson suggested improving sewer services and finding a way for the tides to flush in and out of the Delta, possibly by raising the roadway that acts as a dam in some sections –– an idea not included in the state Department of Transportation’s (ALDOT) five-year plan.
Callaway said business owners and residents will decide how the Causeway grows, using local zoning laws.
“A Las Vegas nightclub-looking place could threaten our scenic byway designation,” she said, noting any changes in zoning would include input from property owners.
One sticking point has been a sign ordinance still being drafted by the city of Spanish Fort, AL.
“There aren’t vast restrictions that would ever be imposed,” Callaway said.
The Scenic Causeway Coalition last year chose Atlanta-based HDR Engineering Inc., with offices in Pensacola, FL, and Fairhope, AL, to draw a master plan for the highway. But work on the master plan hasn’t started because the contract hasn’t been completed, HDR manager Kirk Stull said.
Callaway said details on the contract have to be worked out with ALDOT, which has to approve HDR.
“We expected to have everything done by June, but there’s probably two to three months delay,” Callaway said. “None of us are in a big hurry to move forward. We want to move forward in the right direction.”
A state conservation official serves on the causeway coalition board. The project started in September 1999.