By CHRIS MANSON
The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) met with Florida Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Kopelousos at the Walton County Courthouse Annex Friday to reiterate the need to complete the four-laning of U.S. 331.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander, referring to Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) statistics, offered information on the number of trip counts dating back to 2005 and accident figures, including last week’s crash that took the life of a 30-year-old DeFuniak Springs resident. She stated the county’s case for expanding U.S. 331, citing safety, evacuation and the support of the “vital tourist industry.”
“I was there this morning,” said Kopelousos. “331 remains on the forefront, and our desire is to help you get there.” She added that the partnership between the county and her agency was key to moving this project forward.
County Administrator Ronnie Bell noted that after last week’s accident, the road was closed for nearly four hours. “And we’re not even in the tourist season,” said Bell.
Kopelousos said partnerships with the private sector would help the county achieve its goals. Bell said the county was close to adding passing lanes to the segment of U.S. 331 near Rock Hill Road, with the help of PBS&J.
“Transportation is the key to Walton County’s future,” said Comander. “We need connectors to the rail system and the new airport (in Panama City). Our economic future is so in question.” District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows said the county’s desire was to have the U.S. 331 project completed to coincide with the opening of the Panama City airport.
FDOT’s Larry Kelley, who was instrumental in the completion of the bypass, updated the BCC on the progress made thus far. He said the expansion of the Clyde Wells Bridge was a major issue. “It’s already designed and ready to go if the money is there,” he said. “The bad news is it’s (going to cost) $280 million.” Kelley explained that the right of way acquisition was estimated at $47.6 million, and the construction estimate is $87.5 million.
Kelley added that a parallel bridge across the Choctawhatchee Bay was the most feasible way to go, while noting that environmental issues would still come up. He also praised the county for its cooperativeness in completing the U.S. 331 bypass. “It’s always easier to help someone who is helping themselves,” said Kelley.
Comander noted that a lot of the property from SR-20 to I-10 is owned by the Air Force, and asked if it was possible to get some of that property donated. “(Eglin Air Force Base) wants to be a member of the community, but they don’t just hand over the land anymore,” said Kelley. He told the BCC that a lot of negotiating would have to come into play.
The county has identified $7 million for the widening of U.S. 331 and $5 million for the expansion of the Wells Bridge as its top two federal funding priorities for FY 2009.
Kopelousos said the federal government’s portion of the state’s transportation budget amounted to roughly 25 percent, and aside from gas tax revenues, much of the income generated comes from toll facilities. She said the U.S. Congress was currently focusing on giving funds to states whose bridges have become deficient.
DeFuniak Springs Mayor Harold Carpenter said completing the four-laning from Edgewood Circle to I-10 should be a priority, as several developments in the city have been put on hold. Councilman James Huffman expressed concern about the “additional burden” that new tolls would put on the workforce.
By CHRIS MANSON