By DOTTY NIST
Now in the planning stages is a road that will save travel time between Walton County and the new Panama City/Bay County International Airport; among other stated benefits of the road project is help in evacuation situations.
The Political Action Committee of the Walton County Chamber of Commerce sponsored a Power of Business Luncheon on Oct. 5 featuring information on the project, referred to as the (State Road) 79 Connector Road.
Walton County Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Dawn Moliterno posed a series of questions to a panel of four men who are knowledgeable about the planned 12-mile-long connector road. Attendees also got a chance to ask questions.
The panel members included Tommy Barfield, director of transportation development for the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT), Walton County District 2 Commissioner Ken Pridgen, Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor Authority (NWFTCA) Chairman Randall McElheney, and Jim Anders, Walton County representative on the NWFTCA. The NWFTCA has identified the 79 Connector Road as a master plan project priority.
Barfield noted that the planned road will actually be an extension of CR-388 in Bay County. Moliterno said it is being referred to as the 79 Connector Road because it will connect SR-79 in Bay County with U.S. 98 in Walton County.
Slated for completion in 2010, the new Panama City/Bay County International Airport is now under construction north of CR-388 and between SR-79 and SR-77 in Bay County, just a few miles from the Bay-Walton County line.
In September, the Walton County Chamber of Commerce approved a resolution setting its support for the completion of the 79 Connector Road as a priority and focus.
Barfield told attendees that the Florida Legislature appropriated $7.5 million in 2008 for the planning, development and environmental (PD&E) phase of the road project, which is ongoing. The PD&E work consists of two sections, he explained, the section of CR-388 between SR-79 and U.S. 98 in Walton County and a section that will connect SR-79 with SR-77 in Bay County.
Barfield said DOT is considering making this a limited access roadway.
Commissioner Pridgen called the road project ” a very important issue” for all parts of Walton County. His expectation was that the project would complement and relieve congestion on U.S. 331, currently the county’s only north-south route to and from the coastal area. Pridgen also saw the 79 Connector a stimulus for Walton County’s economy.
“This is an important thing to start our community growing,” he said.
Anders pointed out that the connector road will provide another option for evacuation and should save 10 to 15 minutes in travel time on the trip between Walton County and the new airport.
McElheney said the NWFTCA has “got the message” from Walton County that focus on getting U.S. 331 four-laned in its entirety must continue. He did not think attention on the 79 Connector Road would detract from that. “I think they will complement each other,” he said.
He noted that making the connector road a toll road would be one option for funding that project.
“Getting the road built is probably going to require tolls,” Barfield agreed.
The design phase of the 79 Connector Road, which will precede construction, is expected to cost another $7.2 million.
Barfield said construction costs won’t be known until the exact alignment of the road is determined in the PD&E study. He said that DOT usually spends between $500,000 and $600,000 a mile for road construction.
McElheney said it is not known at this point where the connector road will join with U.S. 98. According to Barfield, the road will connect four-to-six miles west of the Bay-Walton County line.
Barfield said the 79 Connector Road project is a step ahead from many others because right-of-way for the project has already been acquired. It was part of a $45 million purchase by DOT from the St. Joe Company in 2006.
Moliterno asked the panel members what the community could do to help get the road in place before the opening of the new airport.
Anders encouraged county officials and community leaders to “get behind” the project. Pridgen suggested contacting elected officials and asking for their assistance. McElheney urged proponents of the project to attend meetings of the NWFTCA to voice their support.
Information on NWFTCA meetings is available on the Web at nwftca.com