By DOTTY NIST
Few people in Walton County would disagree that widening the Choctwhatchee bay bridge is a good idea, but some, including the county commission, appear to have qualms about a recent proposal by a private company that would have that result.
At a current estimated cost of $280 million, the bridge expansion has represented the most difficult part of the ongoing effort to get U.S. 331 widened to four lanes from north Walton County to the beaches area. Accomplishing the widening of U.S. 331, the county’s evacuation route, has been a priority for local officials and community members for decades. In recent years county officials have enlisted lobbyists to seek state and federal funds to expand the overloaded two-lane road. They have also made a number of trips to Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., to ask for project funding.
In 2005, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) met with representatives of Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, part of the state Department of Transportation (DOT) that constructs road and bridges that are primarily user- funded through tolls. Expanding the bay bridge through the turnpike enterprise had been suggested by DOT officials as a way to accomplish bridge widening more quickly. However, the idea of a toll bridge was not a popular one, and the commissioners did not pursue action on this possibility.
Last week, at the Feb. 24 BCC regular meeting, the commissioners were presented with information on a recent proposal in connection with U.S. 331 and the bay bridge. The information included a letter from attorney Michael B. Duncan on behalf of the Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor Authority (NFTCA). Duncan stated that the organization had received an unsolicited proposal for a public/private partnership to expand to four lanes the road section between the south end of the Clyde B. Wells Bridge (the bay bridge) and SR-20 in Freeport, including construction of a parallel bay bridge, to result in a four-lane bridge facility.
Proposing to “design, build, operate and finance” the project was a private entity, “Moving US 331 Forward, L.L.C.” Information to the NFTCA on the proposal was provided by Denver Stutler, the L.L.C.’s “managing member,” and a former DOT transportation secretary under the Jeb Bush administration. The Florida Department of State Division of Corporations lists Robert S. Hightower, a Tallahassee attorney, as registered agent for Moving US 331 Forward, L.L.C.
The L.L.C. had provided few details on the proposal but had included mention of the use of “stimulus funds” and “tolling” in the event those funds proved inadequate. The company anticipated later providing “a detailed funding plan.”
Among the many powers of the NFTCA, an agency of the state created by the 2005 Florida Legislature, are the ability to request proposals for public/private transportation projects and to review, approve or reject, and to negotiate such proposals, whether requested or unsolicited.
“The NFTCA has no position yet regarding the proposed partnership and project,” Duncan stated in his letter to the BCC. “Instead, the NFTCA is prepared to commence its statutorily provided process for handling an unsolicited proposal for a public private partnership,” he wrote.
Duncan explained that there would be a 60-day public notification period during which “it is expected” that all parties interested in doing the project, including Moving US 331 Forward, L.L.C., and any competing proposers, would submit their detailed proposals near the end of those 60 days.
He further explained that review and ranking of proposals by NFTCA would follow, in consideration of “the interests and input of Walton County and its citizens.” Then, Duncan concluded, the NFTCA’s options would include negotiating with the highest-ranked proposer, or with Moving US 331 Forward, L.L.C., if that had been the only proposal, or rejecting all proposals.
At the Feb. 24 BCC meeting, County Administrator Ronnie Bell told the commissioners that the NFTCA was not asking them for a recommendation but was just providing information. “They will seek your input,” he noted, ” and input from the public.”
One concern brought forward by M.C. Davis, Walton County businessman and conservationist, was that the proposal could apparently be accepted and negotiated by the NFTCA without the approval of the BCC. “Who gave them this unique power?” he asked.
Davis said he would be completely for the project if the citizens were in favor of it, but he objected to both the scarcity of the information being provided and the short time frame proposed for consideration of this $300-$400 million project.
“What is the urgency for 60 days?” he asked, calling for a much longer notification period to allow for the public to get informed and to encourage competing proposals.
Davis said he had not previously heard the word “toll” in connection with the proposal, an indication that the public has not been provided with “the total picture.” He expressed strong opposition to a private company from outside the area “coming in and owning” this important part of the county’s transportation network.
“That time line is ridiculous!” weighed in Driftwood Estates resident Alan Osborne.
County Commission Chair Sara Comander contrasted the situation with the Mid-Bay Bridge in Okaloosa County, a toll bridge, with Walton County’s situation. She pointed out that taking the toll bridge is not the only option in the neighboring county, that there are other north-south routes. This would not be the case in Walton County if the bay bridge became a toll facility, since it is on the county’s only north-south route, she remarked.
Comander encouraged citizens to contact the commissioners with their input on this proposal.
District 3 Commissioner Larry Jones made a motion to send a letter to the NFTCA asking the organization to lengthen the public notification process for the Moving US 331 Forward proposal to a six-month time frame. His motion was approved unanimously.