By ASHLEY AMASON
In a press conference, Monday, Jan. 12, County Administrator Ronnie Bell, County Commissioner Sara Comander, and Freeport Mayor Mickey Marse announced that $19.5 million of state and federal funds are available to widen U.S. Highway. 331.
Currently, just over $6 million of the $19.5 million has been secured, and will be used to four-lane a segment of U.S. from Owl’s Head to Edgewood Circle.
The secured $6,363,445 is a triumph in times of continuous budget cuts. The remaining funds are to be allocated upon the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) receiving written direction from Walton County to re-direct the remaining Transportation Regional Incentive Program (TRIP) funds, written agreement from Walton County to accept the “old alignment” of U.S. 331 between S.R. 20 in Freeport and Owl’s Head, and written agreement from Walton County to design the multi-laning project utilizing state funds that the FDOT currently has programmed in fiscal year 2009 for this effort. Upon Governor Crist’s approval of such proposals, completing these steps would result in accruing $13,144,187, totaling $19.5 million, just short of the requested $24 million the county commissioners say is needed to ease the congestion on U.S. 331.
“This [allocation of funds] is…the culmination of about eight months worth of work between a lot of different entities” said Bell.
“The county received, over a year ago, a TRIP grant to put in two three-lane, one-mile segments on the 4.2 mile segment from Owl’s Head up to Edgewood Circle to alleviate some of the safety issues along that road – to, basically, have passing lanes,” Bell explained.
Once the TRIP grant was awarded to three-lane the segment, a proposal was made to the FDOT to instead four-lane the entire segment. Bell acknowledged funds to four-lane the entire segment lack approximately $4.8 million.
“Probably from the time we get started , if everything goes forward, we’re still probably looking five years out before you see a four-lane [segment from Owl's Head to Edgewood Circle].” Bell went on to say that hopefully, by that time, additional funding will be provided to complete the entire 4.2 miles.
Commissioner Comander declared, “I want to commend Ronnie Bell, because he’s the one that had this little seed started, and Larry Kelly with DOT, he’s such a breath of fresh air! Instead of saying we can’t do that or we’ve never done that, Larry is one to look out of the box to try to make it happen, to make it work.” Mayor Marse echoed Commissioner Comander’s sentiments, claiming Bell has been the “spearhead” behind this project.
Commissioner Comander continued, “In this day and time, when we need economic stimulus, this is a wonderful example of state government and county governments working together to make things happen for our citizens.” Bell added “I think it’s a model that can be used around the state.”