By DOTTY NIST
Over $289 million for the U.S. 331 corridor was part of the almost $1 billion in accelerated transportation funding announced several week previous for Northwest Florida, Tommy Barfield clarified, speaking to Walton County commissioners on Feb. 12.
Barfield, secretary for Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) District Three, made a presentation at the outset of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting on that date at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
Walton County District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld had contacted Barfield and asked him to attend the meeting to address concerns related to a possible change in design plans for the expansion of the U.S. 331 bay bridge and related to a recent announcement by Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville).
On Jan. 31, Gaetz had announced the $1 billion in new transportation funding through a news release and in meetings in Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach and Panama City. Those meetings had included business and civic leaders, DOT officials, and a number of state legislators.
Gaetz’ news release had not mentioned any funding for Walton County transportation projects as part of the $1 billion, and Barfield admitted that no meeting had been held in Walton County in connection with the announcement of the funding.
“That’s probably my fault,” Barfield told the commissioners.
“I want to apologize to the county and certainly to the commission for that,” he said.
He told the commissioners that he wanted to clear up the misunderstanding that Walton County had not received any part of the billion dollars’ transportation funding.
Barfield pointed to a display board that he explained was one of a number that had been used in the Jan. 31 meetings announcing the accelerated transportation funding. It read, in part, “U.S. 331 Investment: $289,107,351.”
“The point I’m trying to make is that that $289 million is part of the billion dollars that the senate president was celebrating with us as an agency that are going to be spent in Northwest Florida in the next couple of years,” Barfield emphasized.
Lingering discontent in Walton County, the result of DOT having required a $75 million local match for the planned addition of two additional lanes to the U.S. 331 bay bridge, had been exacerbated by the announcement that, as part of the $1 billion, the Three-Mile Bridge across the bay in Pensacola would be replaced—with all costs paid by state transportation funds.
A year ago, DOT had indicated that a match of $100 million would be required in connection with this $500-plus million Escambia County bridge project, either through a toll or another form of local funding.
Barfield addressed the issue of the Three-Mile Bridge early in his remarks.
He told the commissioners that the Pensacola bay bridge, constructed in 1960, is at the “end of its life cycle.” In November 2010, Barfield explained, as part of an inspection, substantial deficiencies had been identified with the existing bridge. Due to those findings, he noted, DOT has no choice but to replace or close the bridge within six years.
Barfield said DOT had looked at the possibility of placing tolls on one or more lanes of the replacement bridge to help pay for construction costs, but had deemed that plan not feasible due to the number of vehicles traversing the Three-Mile Bridge—50,000 per day.
He noted that DOT is still eyeing a $100 million shortfall for that bridge replacement project, but he was confident that those funds would be identified prior to construction, which is expected to begin in approximately two years.
Barfield explained that, when DOT’s work program is developed, it is done with an eye to ensuring that each county receives its “fair share” of transportation funding. By state statute, each county is to receive a certain percentage of allocated dollars, relying on a formula, he revealed.
The formula, Barfield explained, is based on 50 percent of the county’s population and 50 percent of the gasoline taxes collected within the county’s boundaries. According to the formula, he said, Walton County’s share is 3.2 percent of the funding for District Three’s work program, with District Three encompassing 16 northwest Florida counties.
Barfield noted that, examining at funding for projects in Walton County for the 10-year period between 2009 and 2018, the allocation to the county is $529 million, or approximately 10 percent of the dollars in District Three’s $5.3 billion work program.
The $529 million does include the $75 million local match on the expansion of the U.S. 331 bay bridge, he clarified. The loan on those matching funds is to be paid off through a half-percent local option sales tax on which collection began on Jan .1.
Barfield told the commissioners that it is his responsibility “to see that the county receives their share, and they do.”
Barfield went into detail on funds programmed and committed by DOT toward the expansion of the U.S. 331 corridor. In the past $174 million was provided, and for the current year and 2014, the additional $289 million is programmed, he noted, with $188 million of that to go to expansion of the bay bridge. The latter amount does include the $75 million local match. $100 million is to go to the widening of a section of the roadway, Barfield added, and the rest will go toward inspection and other miscellaneous costs.
The combined total for investments in the U.S. 331 corridor for the past five and next five years, he stated, comes to $464 million, going toward the corridor between U.S. 98 and I-10.
In response to Imfeld’s question about a change in plans for the U.S. 331 bay bridge expansion, Barfield said DOT is now working through responses to requests for proposals for the bridge project and getting ideas from the design/build teams who had submitted the responses. One idea is using part of the bridge causeway in connection with the project, he said, resulting in possible cost savings. Previously DOT had indicated that the bridge design would be shore to shore rather than utilizing the causeway.
Barfield said no decision had been made on the issue. He anticipated an awarding of the bid for the project in June, at which time the price of the project would be known.
Barfield said he had been “very appreciative” of Walton County’s vote to implement the half-cent local option sales tax to offset the cost of expanding the bay bridge. In doing so, Walton County became the third county in District Three to implement a local sales tax for transportation funding, he revealed….
Read the full story in the Feb. 21, 2013 edition of the Herald Breeze.