By DOTTY NIST
Recent assurances from the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to county commissioners have resulted in some rethinking by commissioners on the U.S. 331 bay bridge issue.
The major north-south highway is the county’s only evacuation route for the area south of the bay. Efforts by the county to get U.S. 331 widened in its entirety up to the state line have been ongoing since the 1960s or earlier.
A Feb. 28 meeting with DOT officials in Tallahassee, attended by county commissioners and staff, State Representative Brad Drake, members of the Walton County Taxpayers Association (WCTA), and other citizens, was by all accounts very productive. It resulted in assurances by DOT regarding not only the four-laning of the bay bridge but the widening of the remainder of the state highway as far north as I-10—on the condition of the county’s financial participation with the bridge expansion project. For the first time, DOT also expressed willingness to look at a reduced rate for residents if a toll were imposed on the new bridge span that is proposed.
Additional time was also agreed to in which the county could consider whether to enter into a partnership on the bridge project. The deadline for a decision had previously been June 1. It was extended to July 1.
As a follow-up to the Feb. 28 meeting, DOT had promised a letter setting out in writing items agreed to at the meeting. The letter was provided on March 13. It was made available to members of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at their regular meeting that afternoon and to citizens attending the meeting. The meeting took place at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
Signed by DOT District Three Secretary Tommy Barfield, the letter indicated that, if a $2 toll were implemented to provide Walton County’s required $75 million local match on the $177-million project, that the toll would not be permanent. DOT pledged that the toll would stay in place only until the $75 million debt was retired, for a 30-year period.
Barfield’s letter also announced that DOT had recently initiated “a more detailed Toll and Revenue study…to evaluate traffic composition and develop toll options.”
“Elements of the study will including tolling in one direction, and toll rate scenarios that could provide potential discounts for local residents,” the letter continued. DOT anticipated having preliminary results from the study by July.
The letter indicated that, if imposed, tolls would be collected not by means of toll booths but “electonically by overhead gantry systems at the approaches to the bridge” for vehicles with transponders. License plates of vehicles without transponders would be photographed and processed electronically, with “periodic statements” mailed to drivers of those vehicles for payment, the letter detailed.
The letter concluded with the statement that DOT “is willing to commit additional funding to widen the corridor north of the bridge and complete construction by 2017.”
At the March 13 BCC meeting, Walton County Administrator Greg Kisela reminded the commissioners that DOT had, prior to the bridge proposal, already programmed the funding necessary to complete the four-laning of U.S. 331 all the way north to I-10, with the exception of between $78 and $80 million.
In December, the agency had pledged $102 million to widen the bay bridge on the condition of Walton County providing $75 million in local matching funds through a toll or by other means.
“The devil is in the details,” Kisela told the commissioners.
On Feb. 14, the BCC had voted not to ask the state to impose a toll as the source for the $75 million matching funds for the bridge project. On that date, the commissioners had also voted to set an April 24 referendum at which voters would decide whether to raise the sales tax by one-half cent on the dollar for taxable items in other to fund the $75 million match.
Kisela asked the commissioners if it was their desire to do anything differently as a result of the letter from DOT.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander suggested that “in light of” the letter, consideration of the toll be put back “on the table” and two public hearings, one in the north end and one in the south end, be scheduled to update the public with new information on the toll option.
District 2 Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen expressed appreciation to the WCTA for its participation with the meeting with DOT in Tallahassee. He found it to be very helpful.
Pridgen commented that the county could not afford to let this opportunity pass. “The job creation here is going to be tremendous,” he stated.
Pridgen added that, considering how long as the county has been trying to get U.S. 331 widened, “we can’t just throw up our hands” and give up.
“It just doesn’t get better than the package we walked away with,” Bonnie McQuiston of the WCTA said of the Feb. 28 meeting in Tallahassee. She thanked the commissioners for supporting the WCTA members in making their case to DOT.
McQuiston took the opportunity to publicly apologize to Dawn Moliterno, Walton County’s point person for the U.S. 331 widening effort. McQuiston said she had found that statements that she had made accusing Moliterno of brokering a deal for the bridge proposal had been incorrect. McQuiston explained that she had learned from DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad that the offer to Walton County for the $102 million funding for the bridge had come because the funds had come available and DOT had wanted them to go to a large bridge project.
Comander recalled that the DOT secretary had stated that “that money was for a bridge.”
“He made it clear that if we turned it down, it would go somewhere else,” Comander recalled.
District 3 Commissioner Larry Jones commented that he had appreciated the BCC previously acting on his suggestion to take the toll off the table—but that he had no problem asking for the toll option to be considered again under the new circumstances that had arisen. He made a motion to do so, which was seconded by Pridgen.
The motion was approved unanimously….
Read the full story in the March 22, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.