By DOTTY NIST
“There are many so many things we have to look forward to in Northwest Florida, nothing greater than this bridge,” said State Senator George Gainer (R-Panama City) told a large group of citizens, state and local officials and other dignitaries on April 7.
The occasion marked the long-awaited completion of the new northbound span of the U.S. 331 (Clyde B. Wells) Bridge—which added two lanes to accomplish four-laning of the bridge—and the opening of Thomas Pilcher Park, a public park on the Choctawhatchee Bay that accompanied the bridge expansion project.
Construction on the bridge project had begun in 2014.
Thomas Pilcher Park features four boat ramps with docks, covered pavilions, restrooms, a 200-foot-long fishing pier, a sidewalk along the bay, parking both for passenger vehicles and vehicles with trailers, and other amenities.
Built under the southern approach of the bridge, the 3-acre park is named for beloved Walton County resident Thomas Pilcher, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Marine Patrol Officer from 1960 to 1986. Deceased in 2007, Pilcher was a strong advocate for the care and responsible use of Choctawhatchee Bay.
Members of the Pilcher family were in attendance, including Thomas’ sons Patrick and Terry, Patrick’s wife Tammy and son Cole.
Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) District Three Secretary Philip Gainer, who shares the same last name as Senator Gainer but is not related, led the ceremony. Secretary Gainer has served in his current position since November. He conveyed thanks to Senator Gainer for his assistance in getting projects of this type funded.
Secretary Gainer also expressed appreciation for the partnership existing between the local officials and DOT.
DOT Secretary Rachel Cone addressed the gathering, appreciative of the opportunity to honor the life of Thomas Pilcher. She also spoke of the ways that the project would contribute to way of life of the area, including its boosting of economic prosperity, increasing mobility, and enhancement of safety, particularly in the event of hurricanes or other emergencies.
Senator Gainer pointed out that the $118 million project had been completed under budget and on time. He encouraged residents to enjoy the park with their families.
He expressed thanks for the ability to work to bring projects of this nature to Northwest Florida and was optimistic that he would be able to bring more of them to the area. “I’m dedicated to do just that,” he told the gathering.
“I thank all of you for all you do,” Senator Gainer concluded.
Secretary Gainer observed that Walton County is one of the fastest growing counties in the United States. He called U.S. 331 the “lifeline” of the Walton County. He recalled working on the design for the original bridge span earlier in his career and remarked on what a sight it was to see the new “sister” bridge span now in place.
Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) Chair Cecilia Jones reminisced about the bridge in its past forms, including as a drawbridge in former years. While Walton County until recently had the second slowest evacuation time for the state, partly due to the two-lane bridge, Jones was proud to say that this was no longer the case.
She was also proud of the way the community had come together on the project and that it had been accomplished without imposing a toll.
“We are grateful that this has come to a reality for us all,” Secretary Gainer agreed.
Recently completed was construction on a 4.6-mile section of U.S. 331 to four-lane the roadway from the north end of the bay bridge to south of SR-30, and the expansion of U.S. 331 from north of SR-20 to I-10 is scheduled to be complete in spring 2018.
Walton County funded $25 million of the $118 million bridge project through a temporary half-cent sales tax sales tax that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2013, as a means to repay Walton County’s loan for the amount of the local
match. The tax remained in effect for two years, resulting in an excess of approximately $6.2 million being collected before it was possible to discontinue the tax.
The use of these excess funds is required to be in connection with the bridge and associated Pilcher Park project and public recreational activity in the vicinity. The county is looking at additional amenities for the park and also at acquiring property on the north shore of the bay for public park and recreation use.
Thomas Pilcher Park is accessed by bearing to the right upon approaching the bridge when heading north and staying in the right lane leading to the park. (There is a sign.) When heading south on U.S. 331, it is necessary to make a u-turn at Chat Holley Road and continue north toward the bridge, then do the same as above.
By DOTTY NIST