The Gulf Coast Parkway as envisioned in 2001 represented “a 100-year opportunity, the best since the paper mill,” said local businessman George Duren.
Thirteen years later, the project has been “hijacked,” county officials said Tuesday.
The Board of County Commissioners launched a public campaign Tuesday to lobby state, and if necessary federal, officials on what commissioners see as a project that provides little benefit to Gulf County, despite the original conception of the project.
County administrator Don Butler said that examining the timeline of the project from its inception in 2001 to the present day is to see how a project to link South Gulf County with U.S. 231 and points north, to provide a spur for economic development and tourism, has now become a highway project to benefit Bay County.
“The intent has certainly changed over the years,” Butler said. “This is huge. Our opportunity is being hijacked.”
The thrust of the issue is the preferred alternative identified by engineers and the Florida Department of Transportation.
That alternative, labeled No. 17, moves along County 386 north to south of Star Avenue in Bay County and links with Star.
That, Commissioner Ward McDaniel said, would be a great route for folks heading from Gulf County to Walmart in Callaway, but with little other benefit for Gulf County residents and businesses.
County officials have long pushed alternative No. 15 which would travel far more to the north before a link with U.S. 231 at Camp Flowers Road.
The more northerly intersection with U.S. 231 would benefit the Port of Port St. Joe and tourism in South Gulf County – and, that, Butler said was a primary motivator for the parkway when it was conceived 14 years ago.
He added that once visitors traveled all the way into Panama City on U.S. 231, as with alternative No. 17, they would be less likely to travel the additional 40-odd miles to Gulf County, Butler said.
And the port would be dependent on an efficient four-lane highway system out of Gulf County to U.S. 231.
“(Alternative 15) is the only way we are going to get anything going with our port,” Butler said.
Commissioner Warren Yeager said taking the parkway, and its four-lane roadway, completely out of Gulf County would significantly constrain the ability of the port to attract tenants dealing with cargo or supplies that would have be trucked.
“We need to take it beyond letters and request a meeting with (FDOT Secretary Anand Persad),” Yeager said. “We need to get in front of the right people.”
Last week’s public hearing on the Gulf Coast Parkway, Butler said, was “spin” and a formality.
Also noting the poor acoustics in the Centennial Building which hosted the hearing, Butler said it might have been FDOT strategy to prevent people for hearing and understanding what was said.
And some of that information provided, Butler and others noted, rang hollow.
For instance, alternatives 15 and 17 include a bridge crossing East Bay, but the cost of constructing the bridge on No. 15, while significantly shorter than the bridge along No. 17, is considerably higher.
Steve Norris, who serves on the Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor Authority, said No. 17 became an alternative during the process of designing and engineering the project and was not originally a consideration.
The alternative – calling for bridge nearly twice the length as No. 15 – was included by a federal environmental agency, which Norris said was baffling.
“This project was hijacked by the (Environmental Protection Agency), the federal government,” said county planner David Richardson. “That is where (No.) 17 and (No.) 19 come from.”
Norris also noted that the preferred alternative now benefits areas around Allanton.
Eastern Shipbuilding has one of its main yards in Allanton.
Additionally, Butler said it appeared that some $18 million earmarked by former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez for the parkway had now been taken out of Gulf County and appeared destined to fund paving projects of of Tram and Nehi Roads in Bay County.
The language for the appropriation from Martinez’s office indicates the $18 million was to be used for the parkway which would create a bypass around Tyndall AFB to impact security and “creates a commerce/hurricane evacuation corridor connecting Gulf County/Port St. Joe with Bay County/Panama City.
Pat Hardman, president of the Coastal Community Association, said sending folks from Gulf County onto a route to U.S. 231 which is already congested by Bay County traffic was no evacuation solution, leaving the county with two-lane State 71 as the primary route.
Butler noted the original intent of the parkway was to help economically disadvantaged counties – the federal dollars are from a program with that purpose. Bay County was hardly disadvantaged Butler noted, which Gulf County has long been considered.
“There is nothing in here right now for Gulf County,” said Commissioner Ward McDaniel.