By DOTTY NIST
A plan that would have likely resulted in a toll bridge on U.S. 331 in Walton County has been withdrawn.
“Moving US 331 Forward, L.L.C. respectfully withdraws our unsolicited proposal to the Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor Authority (NWFTCA) related to U.S. 331,” wrote Denver Stutler Jr., in an April 10 letter to Randall McElheney, NWFTCA chairman.
Stutler, a former state DOT transportation secretary, is a managing member of the private company known as Moving US 331 Forward, L.L.C.
In February, the L.L.C. had submitted an unsolicited proposal for a public-private partnership with the NWFTCA to widen to four lanes the section of U.S. 331 between the south end of the U.S. 331 bay bridge (Clyde B. Wells Bridge) and SR-20 in Freeport. Included would have been the construction of a second parallel bridge across the bay, at an estimated $300 million or more expense. The proposal indicated that tolling “is assumed to fund the Project” in the event that “stimulus funds be inadequate.”
The NWFTCA is an agency of the state with the stated mission of improving mobility along the U.S. 98 corridor in the eight-county Florida Panhandle area. The organization signified that a legally-mandated process would be followed with regard to the proposal. This was to consist of publishing notices of the proposal and other notification procedures, along with a 60-day public notification period to encourage any interested private parties to submit competing proposals, with NWFTCA review of the Moving US 331 Forward, L.L.C., proposal and any others to take place at the end of that time period.
The L.L.C. had promised additional details, including “a detailed funding plan,” at a later date during the 60-day period.
Soon after the initial limited information was provided on the proposal in Walton County, county commissioners and citizens, as well, expressed concerns. The idea of a toll bridge was overwhelmingly unpopular with residents, and commissioners thought the 60-day public notification period was not sufficient in length for them and the public to get informed on such a large undertaking.
Walton County landowner M.C. Davis expressed opposition to the potential ownership of this important part of the county’s transportation infrastructure by a private company. In March, Davis served as organizer for a grass-roots coalition of concerned Panhandle citizens, scientists and community leaders, who joined to oppose the proposal.
Also in March, Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) Chair Sara Comander stated her belief that residents expect the BCC to be in control of decisions affecting the bay bridge, explaining that she saw the potential for this not to be the case with the developing scenario. The BCC then approved a set of resolutions regarding the proposal, the first being a request that the public notification period for the Moving US 331 Forward, L.L.C., proposal be extended to at least 180 days.
The commissioners also resolved that, in the event the 60-day notification period could not be lengthened, that the proposal be rejected ” because it is not in the best interest of the people of Walton County.” In addition, the BCC urged the legislature not to support legislation that would change the existing prohibition on tolling existing transportation facilities. The commissioners also called for the legislature to consider creating a locally-controlled Walton County bridge authority to address expansion of the bridge.
The L.L.C.’s decision to withdraw its proposal was stated to be the result of Walton County’s concerns about “changing the statutory authority of the NWFTCA to allow the Authority to move forward with the project,” along with the county request for an extended public notification period.
“The widening of US 331 has been the top priority of Walton County for many years as this corridor is the backbone of the economy in the County and an important hurricane evacuation route,” Stutler stated in his April 10 correspondence.
“It does not appear that funding is forthcoming from federal, state or local sources of a size needed to widen the bridge in the near or longer-term. Our proposal sought no public funds,” he continued.
Stutler also said that the proposal would have created an estimated 4,200 jobs in the region.
“Our team plans to continue exploring the idea of widening US 331 for the segment from just south of the bridge north to S.R 20,” he also wrote.
Contacted on April 24, Walton County’s representative on the NWFTCA, Jim Anders, noted that a number of alternatives would have been possible with regard to funding of the bridge proposal, including bonding or sales tax funding, although he admitted that a toll bridge plan would have been the most likely.
He stated that, if approved, the proposed public-private partnership would have been essentially between Moving US Forward, L.L.C., and the state Department of Transportation rather than between the L.L.C. and the NWFTCA.
Anders said the NWFTCA would be working on its yearly master plan update at its next meeting, which is set for May 21 in Fort Walton Beach. Additional information is available by logging on to www.nwftca.com.
Dotty Nist can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.