By DOTTY NIST
Construction could start as soon as 2013 on a new span that would add two lanes to the U.S. 331 bay bridge. However, the project depends on a difficult financial commitment by Walton County.
For over a decade, the widening of the two-lane bridge, along with the four laning of U.S. 331 from south Walton to the Alabama line, has been diligently pursued by county officials. This major route is the county’s only north-south evacuation route for the area south of the bay. The need to widen the bridge as part of the four laning of the highway has represented a major impediment to the total project due to projected cost. A few years ago the estimate to expand the bridge stood at over $300 million.
The plan presented by state Department of Transportation (DOT) officials to county commissioners on Dec. 15 was for the addition of a parallel second span east of the current bay bridge, with the existing bridge to carry northbound traffic and the new structure to be used for southbound traffic. $177 million is the current estimate for construction of the bridge expansion.
This information was provided at a special meeting of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
DOT District 3 Secretary Tommy Barfield told the BCC that federal transportation dollars had been secured that could be used to fund the majority of the project cost, with a local match of $75 million to be required on the part of the county to fully fund the project.
“The time is right to move forward,” Barfield said. DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad told the commissioners that currently construction bids for projects are coming in much lower, at 2004 prices or in some cases at those of 2003 or 2002.
Barfield said DOT was proposing to raise the $75 million local match by selling bonds and then placing a $2 toll on the new bridge span to pay off the bonds. He said the toll would be confined to the new southbound structure, with no toll increase over time and with the toll to be eliminated once the $75 million debt was retired. He estimated that this would take approximately 30 years.
Barfield said plans were for the bridge project to be bid out on a design/build basis and that the structure would be required to span from shore to shore without causeways.
He added that the state expects to contract the four laning of the section of U.S. 331 between the bridge and SR-20 in 2012, a $26 million project.
District 5 Commissioner Cecilia Jones thanked the officials for their help with the U.S. 331 project but added, “A toll really frightens me.” She asked if the county would be able to look at other options for the local matching funds.
“Absolutely,” Barfield responded.
Prasad assured the officials of his and Barfield’s commitment to getting U.S. 331 widened all the way north to I-10. Their goal is to make this happen within the next three to four years, he explained. To do so, he commented, will be “truly a game changer” and an enticement to people looking for an area in which to do business or invest.
Prasad discussed the increasing difficulty of getting funding for transportation projects through the federal Highway Bill, which relies on the gas tax as a source of revenue. Those revenues are down, Prasad explained, because Americans have been driving less and more of them have been opting for more fuel-efficient vehicles. Congress has been conflicted about raising the gas tax to fund more projects, and therefore an extension of the bill that had been expected to be approved in 2010 has yet to be passed.
“We’re trying to squeeze more juice out of that orange every day,” Prasad said in reference to the limited federal transportation funds. He added that this is the reason DOT is looking to diversifying its sources of revenue as with the use of tolls.
Prasad said that both the U.S. House and Senate versions of the Highway Bill extension, as proposed, would cut funding for transportation projects by upwards of 20 percent. A key component of both bills is the use of more tolling, he explained. Tolls would be placed on new but not existing elements of transportation, Prasad said.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander responded that she was aware of the (negative) feelings of so many residents regarding tolls. The proposed toll would take $10 a week from the paychecks of people commuting across the bridge for work, she noted. On the other hand, she observed, the impact on south Walton tourists would be less, since most would cross the bridge only once when arriving for their vacation and once when departing to go home.
Dawn Moliterno, South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) director and Walton County’s point person for the U.S. 331 widening initiative, said that the objective of the meeting had been to present the facts on the U.S. 331 situation to the commissioners. She summarized the facts as “Good news but tough decisions….”
Read the full story in the Dec. 22, 2011 edition of the Herald Breeze.