by DOTTY NIST
Walton County is still eying a $75 million local match in order for two lanes to be added to the U.S. 331 bay bridge. However, as a result of a March 5 meeting between state Department of Transportation (DOT) officials, county officials, Walton County Taxpayers Association members and other citizens, DOT’s offer to the county regarding the bridge and the four-laning of U.S. 331 is being revised in a way that may alleviate some concerns.
In December, DOT officials had announced plans to, as soon as 2013, begin construction on an additional span to widen the bridge to four lanes, a $177-million project—on the condition of Walton County providing $75 million in matching funds. The plans came with assurances by the state officials for the remainder of U.S. 331 to be four-laned all the way to I-10 within the next few years if the county agreed to help fund construction of the bridge.
DOT had indicated that, without the $75 million matching funds being provided by Walton County, the $102 million that DOT was allocating to widen the bridge would go to other needs, which could be in any area of the state.
Funding alternatives identified by the county for the matching funds included agreeing to have the state place a toll on the new bridge span or raising the sales tax in order to pay off the bonds or loan that would provide the $75 million. Apprehensive about the impact of a toll on working people commuting across the bridge, on Feb. 14 the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) made the decision not to ask the state to impose the toll to fund the match. Also on that date, the BCC voted to schedule an April 24 referendum at which voters would decide whether to raise the sales tax by one-half cent per dollar on taxable items in order to fund the $75 million match.
On Feb. 28, the BCC agreed to support citizens in a request to DOT that the $102 million that DOT had programmed for the bridge project be redirected to U.S. 331 four-laning instead, and the March 5 meeting was scheduled with DOT officials in Tallahassee. Pending the request, the printing of ballots for the referendum was delayed by two weeks.
Community leader Bonnie McQuiston, who was one of the attendees at the March 5 meeting, described it as “very positive.” McQuiston said the widening of U.S. 331 and the bridge were presented by state officials as “one complete project.”
Contacted on March 6, Ian Satter, public information officer for DOT District 3, said that it was his understanding that DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad had agreed to put in writing DOT’s commitment to have all of U.S. 331 as far north as I-10 four-laned by 2017 if Walton County agreed to participate in the funding of the bridge project.
He said DOT would be working to identify sources for the approximately $78 million currently unfunded that would be necessary to complete the four-laning of the highway to I-10.
Satter said Prasad had “reiterated” that the $75 million local match would still be required by the county in order for the bridge project to proceed—and that the $102 million programmed for the project could be used only for the bridge or otherwise go to other needs statewide.
Satter said it had been agreed that Walton County would have additional time to explore possibilities and consider whether the county would participate in funding the bridge project. Previously DOT officials had indicated that the county would have a May deadline to make a decision.
Also discussed at the March 5 meeting was a commitment by DOT not to raise the toll on the new bridge span if a toll were imposed, Satter said. If a toll is imposed, DOT has pledged to remove it once the $75 million matching fund amount is obtained—and to fund maintenance and repairs of the bridge from the DOT budget rather than tolls.
Satter said discussion also included a reduced bridge toll for residents or making a bridge Sunpass with a reduced monthly rate available to residents.
McQuiston called the March 5 meeting, “very beneficial,” and “definitely worth the try.” “We came away with a different package than we had before, and I think it’s one that we can work with,” she said.
Details of DOT’s revised proposal to the county regarding the bridge and U.S. 331 are anticipated to be provided in a letter from Secretary Prasad.