By DOTTY NIST
A draft list of over 154 transportation projects and a list of 14 shovel-ready projects was brought forward for review by the Walton County Transportation Advisory Committee at its May 2 meeting at the Walton County Courthouse.
This was a continuation of the committee’s task of ranking transportation projects in connection with plans for a Nov. 8 countywide voter referendum on a one-cent discretionary sales tax for infrastructure projects.
This was the second meeting for the committee. At its first meeting on March 16, the members had started their work by adopting a preliminary list of projects within Walton County. The list had been prepared and ranked by consultants of the Okaloosa-Walton Transportation Planning Organization (TPO), a body composed of elected officials from the urbanized portions of the two-county area which makes recommendations for the use of federal and state transportation dollars.
The committee had then voted to move four projects to the top of the list. These were the Marquis Way West Connector Road project (extending from U.S. 331 over to CR-83A East), followed by the widening of SR-20, the Park Alternate, and the Multi-modal Facility Connector project. The Park Alternate would connect SR-83 to U.S. 331 South through the existing park on the north side of the intersection of those roads, and the Multi-modal Facility Connector would be a multi-use trail facility that would provide a connection from M.C. Davis Boulevard/the South Walton Sports Complex and Dune Lakes Elementary School.
The May 2 committee meeting featured an update by Walton County Planning Manager Kristen Shell on the Walton County Mobility Plan, which is aimed at transitioning the county’s transportation system from a primary focus on automobile transportation to a multi-modal system incorporating and encouraging alternative means of transportation.
Shell reported that the mobility plan had been approved by Walton County in September 2021 and had been integrated into the TPO’s long range transportation plan.
Shell said county staff would be working to ensure that the mobility plan is also fully integrated into the Walton County Comprehensive Plan (CP) and Land Development Code (LDC) and all state transportation plans.
Among other remarks, she noted that the state is working on an update to the greenways and trails statewide master plan, so Walton County would want to make sure the mobility plan is brought into state planning processes related to that master plan in order to provide for mobility plan projects to be considered for grant funding.
For information on the mobility plan, Shell noted that this is available on the Walton County website, www.co.walton.fl.us, under the Planning Department Section and then under Long Range Transportation Plan.
Tony Anderson, a committee member and Walton County District 5 commissioner, remarked on the committee’s cooperative effort between Walton County and the county’s municipalities bringing about a “new era” of working together. He was also hopeful that this cooperation could extend to other areas as well.
Tony Vallee, committee chairman and DeFuniak Springs city councilman, spoke to the need to determine the best means of accomplishing the goals of this cooperative effort, including the best ways to share information, best system to use, and what gaps may need to be filled in. He asked staff to bring back recommendations on this. Vallee was also of the opinion that the Walton County School District should be more actively involved in conversation with the committee.
Chance Powell of Walton County Public Works Engineering led a discussion on a draft list of transportation projects, which had been provided for the first time as part of the meeting agenda. The list was an expansion of the initial list adopted by the committee and had come from a number of sources, among those the TPO, the county’s list of priorities for state and federal funding, and the mobility plan. Powell observed that projects for the cities remained to be added to the list.
Powell noted that 102 of the projects on the list are city and county projects and that 42 of them are on the state transportation facilities. Powell said that since this was a new list, he hoped that over the next week or so everyone would have a chance to review it and prepare comments and questions to bring back for fine-tuning of the list. Total cost for the city and county projects was estimated at $671 million, and for the projects on state facilities, $1 billion.
Approximately $40 million worth of shovel-ready projects had been identified, with more anticipated to be added from information to be provided by the cities. Of the fourteen shovel-ready projects on the draft list, all but one are located in south Walton County.
Together with the list of shovel-ready projects, additional costs of over $8.5 million had been identified for annual infrastructure maintenance by Walton County Public Works.
While recognizing that these maintenance costs were calculated on an annual basis, Danny Glidewell, committee member and Walton County District 2 commissioner, pointed out that 23 wood bridges in the county need replacement and that many miles of dirt roads need to be paved.
In response to questions, Buddy Wright of Walton County Public Works estimated that 170 miles of dirt roads need paving. He also said that the last estimate obtained for replacement of the 23 wood bridges was approximately $16 million, explaining that due to high maintenance cost the county is proposing to work to eliminate wood bridges in favor of another type of construction.
Powell explained that the $8.5 million identified for annual infrastructure maintenance was based on two bridge replacements and four box culvert replacements a year.
Vallee suggested a separate overall needs list to clarify the needed paving and bridge replacement work and to reflect “the full picture” with these items.
Glidewell urged for getting many more projects ready to go. His thought was that if the infrastructure tax were approved, as much work as possible should be undertaken as soon as possible. “I think people are going to want to see bridges being built and their box culverts replaced, and their roads resurfaced, and most especially the dirt to pave,” Glidewell said.
Powell estimated that $40 million of projects would be possible in a year if the tax passes, with a portion of those funds going to projects in Walton County on the TPO’s long range plan in order to get them in place more quickly.
Vallee suggested a look at what would be the limiting factor or factors for getting projects done, whether it would be funding, staffing, engineering, construction or some other element. This would be information necessary to know and be dealt with that would determine “how fast we can really go,” he commented.
Clay Adkinson, acting county attorney, envisioned the committee having a project list ready within four to eight months to show the public what the sales tax would be expected to fund, even though, he noted, state statutes are clear about what can be funded through such a tax and what cannot, on a broad basis.
He also envisioned a bond issuance that the respective governmental boards would put in place probably around the first of January 2023 upon passage of the infrastructure tax, so that funding of projects could start.
Mark Martin, committee member and Freeport city councilman, inquired as to whether bonds would need to be issued if it is only going to be possible to get $40 million in projects done the first year.
Adkinson discussed advantages of issuing bonds, including not having to wait year by year for sales taxes to come in and build up for funding of projects. He also stated that the total cost of immediate project needs just for Walton County is in excess of $40 million and closer to $50 million, even without including needs for the cities.
Martin continued to ask about options other than bonds such as a bank loan. Adkinson advised that for amounts over $20 million, bank qualified financing is typically not available and that in any case the bond market is more favorable. He said bond counsel would be brought in to talk with the committee to discuss options for bond issuance.
Vallee brought up the advantage of going ahead with projects sooner rather than later in order to avoid project price increase due to inflation and land acquisition price increase.
Glidewell was in agreement, saying. “I would say the list we’re looking at right here, a reasonable person probably would say those should have been done 20 years ago…so, I mean, it’s not that we’re getting ahead of anything, we’re just trying to get back in the ball park.”
“The biggest frustration for us is not being able to get things quickly enough,” Anderson agreed. He observed that in addition to having to wait to start projects, that projects usually take two or three years to be completed.
In public comment, south Walton County resident Barbara Morano urged for additional public involvement and more information being provided to the public on the projects under review and what it will take, particularly in terms of personnel, to get them accomplished. She also suggested varying committee meeting locations between different areas of the county.
There was consensus among the committee members to hold the next meeting in Paxton, with meeting details to be finalized and provided later.
Agendas and materials for the Transportation Advisory Committee may be viewed on the Walton County website at the link: https://www.co.walton.fl.us/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=2345