Proposed Coosa River Express toll bridge gets mixed reviews

Published 5:01 pm Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Shelby County Highway Department is in the process of learning more about a proposed toll bridge that would stretch over Lay Lake on the Coosa River system, connecting Shelby and Talladega counties.

Private developer Tim James said the proposed toll bridge, called the Coosa River Express, would be 1,600 feet long, 43 feet wide and consist of two 12-foot lanes with 8-foot shoulders on each side.

The toll bridge would connect south Shelby County, at I-65 in Calera, to Alabama 280 in Sylacauga. Eastern access to the bridge would be from Russell Chapel Road in Talladega County and western access to the bridge would be from Shelby County 28.

But for this idea to become reality, James needs to acquire licensing from Shelby and Talladega counties. The licensing process is further along in Talladega County, where a public hearing has been set for Monday, Jan. 13, but in Shelby County the process is just getting started, according to Shelby County Engineer Randy Cole.

According to James, motorists would pay about $2 to cross the bridge. James said drivers don’t have to worry about the company increasing the toll fee too much because that wouldn’t be a smart business decision.

“We’re a for-profit company,” James said. “If we raise the cost too much, no one will use the toll. They will just continue to do what they’ve always done. This is just an alternate to other routes that you can use or not use.”

The project has an expected total cost of $30 million to $40 million, all of which would be privately funded. The majority of the money would be used to build and improve roads leading to the bridge. Each county would retain ownership of their respective roads and James’ company, Tim James Inc., would retain ownership of the bridge and the toll.

Columbiana Mayor Stancil Handley, who is in favor of the project, said he can understand some concerns county officials may have about the project.

“These roads will still be county roads, and I’m sure there’s some concern about the roads being done properly so they don’t become a burden on the county in the future,” Handley said. “But don’t think that’s something we have to worry about because I’m sure that Mr. Cole will make absolutely sure the roads are done correctly.”

Given the county’s rapid growth, Handley said road improvements in rural parts of the county would have to be completed at some point anyway, so why not take advantage of an opportunity to have them improved at no cost to the county or municipalities?

But road improvements aren’t the only area of concern, according to District 1 Shelby County Commissioner Kevin Morris. He attended a public forum, hosted by members of the Lay Lake Boat Club, at South Shelby Baptist Church on Monday, Jan. 6, and said more residents spoke against the project than in favor of it. Morris attended the forum as a resident of Lay Lake. He said no one from the county attended in an official capacity and the developer was not present.

Residents against the project cited concerns about increased traffic and crime, a lack of infrastructure and full-time first responders to support rapid growth and decline in property values for those living in the area.

Morris said he is personally against the project because there are so many unknowns about the project and he is concerned about how the toll bridge would impact his property value and his enjoyment of the lake. However, as an elected official, he said he is committed to being the voice of his constituents.

Since news of the proposed toll bridge broke, Morris said he’s been receiving several emails each day from people wanting to express their opinion on the matter – many of them against it.

“I will always vote on behalf of District 1,” he said. “I would love to see the final plans nailed down so I can present the correct information to the public and address concerns.”

Concept proposals have been sent to Cole and preliminary discussions with James’ project engineers, Volkert Inc., have taken place, but additional information is needed. Cole said there are still questions regarding proposed routes, road improvements, upgrades to existing roads and other engineering concerns that need to be addressed.

Handley said he sees this project as an opportunity for economic growth in Columbiana and surrounding areas.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea, I think it’s a great idea,” Handley said. “We’re trying to become an entertainment destination with the new arts center and park complex, and this bridge would give residents in other areas easier access to the city.”

Handley said the bridge would also mean easier access to Talladega County attractions, like Pursell Farms, and Columbiana residents who own property in Talladega County would have a much shorter commute to their lakefront properties.

Prior to a decision, Cole and the Shelby County Commission will evaluate whether the proposed project is beneficial for Shelby County and its residents. The public will have the opportunity to provide their input on the proposed bridge and supporting road infrastructure during this review process.

There will be opportunities for to residents to provide input on the final concept once it is received by the County Engineer’s Office. At this time, Cole said such details and information are not available, and it would be premature to provide anything as the developer continues to make changes to the proposed project. Currently, Cole has not been given sufficient information to provide to the Shelby County Commission to consider any possible action.

The idea of a toll bridge connecting Shelby and Talladega counties is not a new one. According to longtime Shelby County Attorney Butch Ellis, roughly 20 years ago Talladega County approached Shelby County with a request to participate in a feasibility study to determine if a toll bridge connecting the counties would be beneficial. Shelby County agreed to participate, but the results of the study revealed that the project was not feasible, so the idea was abandoned.

Ellis said the study indicated there would not be enough traffic through the toll bridge to recoup costs.

“Quite a bit of work would have had to be done to the roads because a road that can support a car can’t necessarily support an 18-wheeler,” Ellis said. “The overall expenses were just too much.”

This was around the same time that James first took interest in the project. At the time, he also was part of the group that was developing a toll bridge, called the Foley Beach Express, over the Intercoastal Waterway in Orange Beach.

“The timing wasn’t right,” James said in reference to his first attempt at a Shelby/Talladega toll bridge. “About a year ago, we picked it back up and it just made sense this time. This is a solid project and its economic impact will be a game changer for both counties.”

James said the benefits of the project far exceed singular interests. He hopes to obtain licensing from both counties by spring and expects the permitting process through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take about one year. An additional year is expected for construction, with completion slated for 2022.