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With refendum approaching, input on bridge funding still mixed

Apr 27th, 2012 | 0

By DOTTY NIST

State officials met with county commissioners and the public on April 17 with information on the possibility of a toll to help fund a new bridge span across the bay on U.S. 331.

This was at special meeting of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at the South Walton Courthouse Annex. In attendance were Jason Peters, planning engineer for DOT District 3, and Nicola Liquori of the Florida Turnpike Enterprise.

The possibility of a toll continued to draw criticism from the public. Some citizens in attendance were in favor of the alternative of raising the sales tax to provide the needed funding. Some spoke against a sales tax increase, and still others thought there was no need for the two-lane bridge to be expanded.

In December 2011, state Department of Transportation (DOT) officials had proposed proceeding with the new bridge span, a $177-million project, on the condition of Walton County providing local matching funds of $75 million. As a source for the matching funds, DOT had suggested the placement of a $2 toll on the new bridge span until the $75 million had been paid off, at which time tolls would be discontinued. It has been estimated that this would occur in approximately 30 years.

At the recommendation of a panel of local citizens enlisted to evaluate options for the funding, the BCC had voted to hold a referendum at which county voters would decide whether to raise the sales tax by one-half cent per dollar on taxable items. If approved, the sales tax increase would become the revenue source for the $75 million rather than a toll. The ordinance that would set up the sales tax increase specifies that the tax would sunset as soon as the $75 million was paid off, and that it could not be continued for any reason. It has been estimated it would take 10 to 11 years for the $75 million to be paid off with this source of revenue.

The sales tax referendum is set for May 8.

The April 17 meeting was primarily for the purpose of providing information on the toll alternative and taking citizen input. A similar meeting had taken place in DeFuniak Springs on April 3.

The two meetings had been called following an agreement in March by DOT to consider toll discounts for local residents—and assurance by DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad that the state would widen U.S. 331 all the way to I-10 by 2017 on the condition of Walton County partnering with the $75 million in local matching funds for the bridge project.

Previously the BCC had voted to take the toll option off the table. As a result of the new statements by DOT, the commissioners brought that option back into consideration and scheduled the informational meetings.

“It’s going to hurt the faith community to some degree,” Walter Campbell said of the toll option. Campbell is pastor of South Walton First Baptist Church.

Campbell told the commissioners that people commuting across the bridge to work who have paid tolls all week will not want to have to pay a toll on Sunday to attend church.

“I don’t think we need a bridge,” commented Inlet Beach resident Betty Letcher.

Freeport resident Danny Hunter suggested charging tolls to tourists but not residents. Walton County Administrator Greg Kisela responded that DOT has indicated that the best they would be able to do would be to provide discounted tolls for local residents.

Peters told the gathering that DOT is conducting a toll and revenue study analyzing the traffic make up on the bridge, evaluating the types of discounts that would be possible and calculating those discounts. Unfortunately, the results of the study will not be available until fall.

Liquori noted that the role of the turnpike authority would be “toll collector.” The new bridge span would not become part of the turnpike authority, she said.

Liquori said the new bridge span is contemplated as “an all-electronic toll facility,” since this is “the safest way to collect the revenue.” She explained that there would be no toll booths and that vehicles would not be required to stop for toll collection.

Tolls would be collected by two methods, one of those via Sunpass transponders and the other, for vehicles without transponders, via “toll-by-plate.”

Payment kiosks would be set up for replenishment of transponder balances and it would also be possible to add to those balances on line, Liquori explained.

The “toll-by-plate” program would rely on a photograph of the tag of a vehicle crossing the bridge. The owner would receive a monthly bill for all tolls for that month plus a $2.50 document fee per bill.

In response to a question, Liquori said only six out of 10 of these bills are paid. However, she said legislation has been proposed that would allow unpaid bills to be sent to collection agencies.

Bill Fletcher was concerned about DOT’s toll and revenue study not being available until fall. Citizens will not have this information prior to casting their vote in the referendum.

If the referendum passes, the toll option will be eliminated. If it fails, the BCC will face a decision whether or not to ask the state to implement the toll. With no tax and no toll to fund the $75 million local matching funds, the $102 million that the state has programmed for the bridge project would go away, to be used for a similar project in another area of the state.

The commissioners had also hoped to have the results of the toll and revenue study much sooner than fall. However, Kisela commented that the “big picture” is a $2 toll on the new northbound span, and that DOT is looking at who would get a discount.

No toll is planned for the existing bridge span….

Read the full story in the April 26, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.

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