Whatever concerns citizens may have about the proposal to add a new two-lane span to the U.S. 331 bay bridge, having to stop to pay a toll should not be one of them, as all tolls would be collected electronically. Discounted tolls for local residents would also be possible.
Representatives of the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and of Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise were in DeFuniak Springs on April 3 at an informational special meeting of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at the Walton County Courthouse.
On May 8, Walton County citizens will vote on whether to fund through a sales tax the $75 million that would be required as matching funds to make the $177 million project a reality. If the vote on the proposed half-cent per dollar sales tax increase fails, commissioners will be faced with a decision whether or not to have the state impose a toll on the new bridge span in order to pay off a loan or bonds for the $75 million.
The purpose of the April 3 meeting was to receive public input and provide new information on the toll possibility. Slightly over two dozen people were in attendance.
“As you know, it is a very complicated issue,” Walton County Administrator Greg Kisela told attendees.
He called DOT’s recent proposal to widen all of U.S. 331 as far north as I-10 by 2017 “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Recently the agency made this commitment with the condition of Walton County participating in the funding of the bridge expansion by providing the $75 million in local matching funds.
Kisela noted that the total project would result in $1.5 to $2 million per week in DOT and county dollars being spent in Walton County. This would create a “real boom” for the local economy, he predicted.
Tommy Barfield, DOT secretary for District 3, agreed that the project was “a tremendous opportunity,” not just for Walton County but for his agency. Barfield said that he was very close to revealing other “good news” but was not able to do it just yet.
Barfield said DOT had recently made repairs to the causeway of the existing bridge that had smoothed out its surface, and that additional work on the causeway was planned.
The bridge span that would be added would run from shore to shore without causeways.
In response to a question, Barfield clarified that the new span would be built east of the existing bridge and would become the northbound span. If a toll is implemented, it would be applied to that new northbound span.
DOT officials had previously provided information different from this on the proposed new bridge span. Barfield indicated that plans had not changed but that this was a case of the officials having misspoken.
In response to another question, Barfield noted that DOT would strive to protect both the environment and recreational use of the causeway and its boat ramps. However, he said, it might be necessary to close the ramps temporarily at some time during construction.
DOT has estimated a $2 toll if a toll is implemented on the new span, and that the toll would need to remain in place for 30 years for the $75 million debt to be paid off. Once the debt was paid off, the toll would sunset, Barfield stated.
Asked how this would be guaranteed, Barfield assured residents that a binding legal agreement would be drawn up and signed to ensure that the toll would be discontinued at that time. Rather than coming under the authority of the Turnpike Enterprise, he detailed, the new bridge would be a facility subject to an agreement between Walton County and DOT, with the Turnpike Enterprise “helping at our request” with the collection of tolls….