By DOTTY NIST
“We have the tax, the toll, or declining the money and waiting,” Kitty Whitney summed up the options regarding getting the U.S. 331 bay bridge widened from two lanes to four.
This was at a Feb. 9 informational community meeting on the topic of the bridge, held at the South Walton Utility Building in Miramar Beach. More than 75 people attended, and some brought up other options
The original plan had been for two Walton County Republican clubs to sponsor the meeting, but this was decided against, and Miramar Beach resident Mike Flynt had taken over as organizer and facilitator. The community meeting took place just a week before the date county commissioners were set to consider a decision regarding the bridge, involving a referendum for a sales tax increase.
Flynt said he had seen incorrect information on the issue in letters to the editor and wanted to see that correct information was provided to the public. He had invited panel members, including Whitney, who is president/CEO for the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce; Walton County Finance Director Bill Imfeld, Capt. Joe Preston of the Walton County Sheriff’s Office, and Walton County Administrator Greg Kisela.
“We have a real problem in evacuating the people south of the bay in the event of a hurricane,” Flynt said. He noted that Walton County’s evacuation time is the second slowest in the state, second only to the Florida Keys in Monroe County. Calling this “a shameful situation,” Flynt said that in his opinion four-laning the bridge would alleviate that problem.
Kisela commented that at the end of 2011 the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) had told Walton County that, in partnership with the county, DOT was willing to bring funds to the table to four-lane the bay bridge. This was on the condition of Walton County providing a $75 million local match in that funding. DOT has pledged to provide $102 million for the $177-million project. Kisela noted that any price overrun would not require Walton County contributing more than the $75 million. He said that if the project moves forward, it would be bid out in summer 2012 and that construction would start in 12 to 18 months.
DOT has asked for a decision from the county in time for the project to be included in the agency’s budget during this year’s legislative session and for project plans to be finalized by June 2012.
DOT had proposed that the local matching funds be provided by placing a toll on the new southbound bridge span that would be constructed to add two lanes to the bridge facility. However, Walton County began to consider the possibility of providing the local match by adding up to an additional cent on a dollar to the county’s sales tax.
“There’s been a lot of pros and cons,” Kisela said. “All options are on the table,” he added.
A favorable vote in a voter referendum is required in order for the sales tax to be raised. Undetermined at the time of the meeting was whether there would be a referendum—and, if so, whether a full cent increase would be put to voters or if three-fourths or one-half of a cent would be proposed. Kisela said that, if held, the referendum would be scheduled for April 24.
The current county sales tax is 7 percent. Imfeld has presented figures showing that tourists pay 57 percent of the sales tax in Walton County or more. The sales tax is only applied to some purchases, with medicine and grocery products that are prepared at home being among the exemptions.
DOT has stated that if the $75 million in additional funding for the project is not identified, the $102 million allocated to the bridge four-laning would be “reprogrammed to meet other needs.” Those needs could be in any area of the state.
Kisela said of the bridge, that if over the next 10-15 years “it’s widened it will be a toll (bridge).”
On Dec. 15, DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad had stated that he and District 3 Secretary Tommy Barfield were committed to getting U.S. 331 four-laned all the way to I-10 within the next few years. The officials observed that the bridge had represented a major impediment to that effort due to its projected cost, which at one time had exceeded $300 million.
Kisela commented that a project to four-lane the section of U.S. 331 between the bridge and SR-20 would be awarded shortly by DOT and go into construction within the next few months. He added that all other sections of U.S. 331 between SR-20 and I-10 are either under construction, under design, or in a program for right-of-way acquisition with the state agency.
“I don’t know how strong a commitment that is,” Bob Hudson said of DOT’s pledge to get U.S. 331 four-laned. “They’ve robbed $3.8 billion in the last 10 years from the Highway Trust Fund,” Hudson stated.
“It could just be a bridge to nowhere,” Dan Scupin agreed.
Alan Powdermaker predicted that, if the current partnership agreement were not to proceed, that in five years or more DOT would construct the bridge project, “and when they build it there is going to be a toll.” “A toll would not be to the advantage of the people who live in Walton County,” Powdermaker commented.
“Send our elected officials to Tallahassee for money;” urged Frank Day, “there is money on the table that we can go get.” He spoke of contracts for other projects recently having been cancelled.
Charlotte Flynt urged for consensus among Walton County citizens to push for local transportation needs to be met.
Whitney commented that, if U.S. 331 is not four-laned, Walton County could face a challenge competing for tourists with neighboring counties who have been “very savvy” in getting their north-south routes widened.
A tourist-accommodation owner in attendance remarked that she had never had a complaint from a renter about evacuation. She said that, however, renters often complain about the high taxes that are charged in south Walton County, including 4.5 cents on the dollar for bed tax and 7 cents for sales tax.
A man in the front row called for no tax and no toll. He said that if Walton County raised the sales tax, he would surely go to another county with a lower sales tax to buy his next lawnmower.
Capt. Joe Preston discussed evacuation, stating that a 2010 study had calculated Walton County’s evacuation time at 24 hours. Evacuees will be crossing bridges on their route, whether they take U.S. 331 or go to the east or west, he noted. DOT shuts down bridges at different wind speeds, depending on their construction and other factors, Preston revealed. Walton County’s U.S. 331 bay bridge shuts down at a sustained wind speed of 40 mph, he said while the West Bay Bridge is shut down at a 50 mph wind and the Mid-Bay Bridge at a 45 mph wind. Preston added that Walton County’s current bridge has causeways and a second bridge associated with it, structures that are susceptible to flooding.
Preston discussed contraflow, the practice of turning both lanes of traffic one way in an evacuation. The decision to do contraflow is not one that is made at the local level, he revealed, and the decision is made in coordination with neighboring counties.
When contraflow is implemented on U.S. 331, Preston said, it is necessary to post personnel at each of 59 feeder roads running into the highway between U.S. 98 and I-10, in order to prevent vehicles entering the highway from turning south. This cuts down on personnel that can be used to go into neighborhoods to advise people of an evacuation, he said.
Asked his opinion on four-laning, Preston said that with more infrastructure, more traffic volume can be accommodated, resulting in a potential saving of lives….
Read the full story in the Feb.16, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.