By REID TUCKER
A day-long awaited in Walton County finally came to fruition as a groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday formally began the project to four-lane U.S.331.
The $8.6 million project is funded primarily by the Florida Department of Transportation, but Walton County has set aside $3 million of its own for the expansion of the highway. The project, set to be completed by 2013, will widen a 1.6-mile stretch of U.S. 331 South from two lanes to four with the aim of reducing congestion for commuters and tourists and facilitating easier evacuations in the event of a major hurricane. Figures released earlier this year indicate that nearly three million out-of-state visitors travel on U.S. 331 annually, to say nothing of the Walton County residents who drive on it as part of their daily commute.
The current phase of the project begins at Owl’s Head and stretches to the Nokuse Plantation property line at Bill Brown Road north of Freeport.
State and local officials in attendance included state Rep. Brad Drake (who chairs the State Transportation Committee), state Sen. Greg Evers, the members of the Board of County Commissioners, South Walton Tourist Development Council Executive Director Dawn Moliterno, DeFuniak Springs Mayor Harold Carpenter and Freeport Mayor Mickey Marse, among others.
“I’ve waited a lifetime for this to happen,” Marse said in his address to the crowd. “It’s good that it’s finally getting underway. I hope I can hang around here long enough to see it go from I-10 to [U.S. Highway 98] when it’s all done.”