By DOTTY NIST
Where can Walton County get the matching funds required for the four laning of the U.S. 331 bay bridge?
No recommendation has been arrived at for the $75 million that would be needed. However it has been determined that members of public will be able to provide their input on the issue at two public workshops.
The panel recently appointed by county commissioners, known as the Hwy. 331 Blue Ribbon Task Force, held its first meeting on Jan. 5 at the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) office in Santa Rosa Beach.
On Dec. 15, state Department of Transportation (DOT) officials had presented a plan to expand the two-lane U.S. 331 bay bridge to four lanes, with construction anticipated to begin in 2013. The plan would involve DOT including the bridge project in its five-year work plan to be approved by the governor—and the use of more than $100 million in federal funds provided to the state. The officials had advised that a $75 million local match would be required in order for the project to proceed.
The project would involve the construction of a southbound “sister bridge” to increase the number of bridge lanes to four.
The Blue Ribbon Task Force had been appointed to evaluate options for the local matching funds.
One option, suggested by the DOT officials, had been placing a $2 toll on the new southbound bridge span without the placement of any toll on the existng bridge section, which would carry northbound traffic. The officials had stated that, if agreed to the the county, the toll would stay in place for a 30-year period until the $75 million had been paid off and that the toll would then be suspended.
Asked for other options by county commissioners, Walton County Finance Director William Imfeld had put forth the idea of raising Walton County’s sales tax by 1 percent to pay off the match, with either the sale of bonds or bank financing being used to provide the $75 million initially.
“This is the choice we have, and it’s not good,” Dawn Moliterno told the task force members. Moliterno, South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) executive director and Walton County’s point person for the four-laning of U.S. 331, served as facilitator for the task force meeting.
Task force members include Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson, Kitty Whitney, Bonnie McQuiston, Wayne Bodie and Leigh Grantham. Also present for the meeting, along with Moliterno and Imfeld, were engineer Greg Graham of Walton County Public Works and Walton County Public Works Director Starsky Harrell. Dede Hinote of Walton County Administration was present to take minutes, and two citizens attended, as well.
Moliterno told the task force members that, without the local matching funds being provided by the county, the more than $100 million in federal funding possible for the bridge expansion would “go away and they will be redirected to another county.”
“It was clear that we do not get a second chance,” Moliterno observed.
She added that timing is critical, with the state legislative session starting in early January.
Imfeld commented that he had been asked to look for a revenue stream to fund the matching funds. since the county does not have $75 million “sitting there or in reserves.” He estimated that the 1-percent sales tax increase would provide enough funding to pay off the $75 million within a decade, allowing the tax increase to sunset at that time.
He noted that the approval of voters would be required in a referendum in order for the 1-percent sales tax increase to be put in place.
Imfeld said the sales tax option would have the advantage of the county not being burdened with a bridge toll over a 30-year period. The bulk of the county’s sales tax is paid by tourists, Imfeld said.
Moliterno said a large influx of visitors during the 2011 tourist season had resulted in “tremendous” traffic and back-ups on U.S. 331. “It created a big challenge not just for evacuation,” she said. Continuing problems like this could cause tourists to seek out another destination, she warned.
Moliterno said she had requested figures on the cost to the average citizen if the sales tax increase were enacted. Those figures, she said, would be presented at the task force’s Jan. 11 public workshop.
Greg Graham of Walton County Public Works commented that the $2 toll amount stated by the DOT officials was an estimate and “may be optimistic.”
Moliterno warned that if the bridge is not widened, DOT officials have indicated that the widening of other segments of U.S. 331 would “slow down.” U.S. 331 is Walton County’s only north-south evacuation route for the area south of the bay, and state officials have assured the county of their commitment to getting the highway widened all the way to I-10 within a few years if the bridge project is able to proceed.
Bonnie McQuiston asked why Walton County is being required to provide the local matching funds when neighboring areas such as Bay County have had bridge projects constructed without this requirement. Moliterno responded that Walton County’s U.S. 331 bay bridge is longer and larger than Bay County’s Hathaway Bridge. She added that the gas taxes that fund projects of this nature by the state have dwindled in recent years due to less driving by the public and more fuel-efficient vehicles. State officials have noted that, because of this, they are seeking alternate sources of funding for projects, including tolls.
“There are no buckets of money,” Moliterno said.
McQuiston asked what would happen if the county sales tax proposal went to voter referendum and did not pass. Moliterno responded that either the BCC would have to approve the imposition of the toll on the new bridge span or else the bridge expansion could not occur. Moliterno noted that, if imposed, tolls would be collected by the state electronically. The county has been told that residents cannot be charged a less expensive toll than tourists, she added.
Tourists are the “lifeblood” of Walton County, but their cars do clog traffic, Moliterno observed. She added that, however, school buses can slow down traffic and people often try to pass them without taking proper care.
Sheriff Adkinson termed the four-laning of the bridge “the most pressing safety concern in this county.” He commented on the 25-hour period required to evacuate Walton County in a hurricane or other emergency. Compounding the problem is the necessity to close down the bay bridge when there are sustained winds of more than 45 miles per hour. “We will have another evacuation and we just have to be ready,” Adkinson urged….
Read the full story in the January 12, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.