With funding for the six-laning of U.S. Hwy. 98 from Airport Road in Destin to Tang-O-Mar Drive in Miramar Beach still in flux, representatives from the Howard Group have hit the pavement to drum up support.
"This is critical," said Leigh Moore, director of community affairs for the Howard Group. "They (FDOT) are very aware of the congestion."
The project, which is expected to cost about $61 million to construct, is currently in the design phase for the 7.5-mile stretch of roadway.
Right of way acquisition and the relocation of utilities would still have to be taken care of for the project that's split between Okaloosa (4.2 miles) and Walton (3.3 miles) counties.
Moore told The Log that the Howard Group has been collecting letters of support for "advanced funding" of the project. They have totaled more than 200 letters so far from area businesses and residents.
Supporters include the Okaloosa-Walton Transportation Planning Organization; Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor Authority; Destin Area Chamber of Commerce; Walton Area Chamber of Commerce; the city of Destin; Okaloosa and Walton County board of county commissioners; St. Joe Company; Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort; and both area economic development councils, just to name a few.
As for the project itself, Moore said there are multiple benefits given the increasing congestion on Hwy. 98. She said the improvements would not only benefit permanent residents, but visitors as well.
In addition to improving commerce between Okaloosa and Walton County, Moore said the project would make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists, given larger bike paths and sidewalks. A wider roadway also allows for improved evacuation times, decreased fuel consumption and less pollution from vehicle exhaust from idling cars.
"It's something we see as good for the area as a whole," said Myra Williams, the Howard Group's vice president of marketing. "Improving the infrastructure to the community is important. How can we make sure we are preparing for growth?"
Not only will the roadway be improved, Moore told The Log that beautification is part of the process as well, as the medians will be landscaped with trees and other plants. The roadways will be separated from the curbs by landscaping when the project is completed.
"This is going to become a beautiful, attractive corridor," Moore said.
As Chairman of the Okaloosa-Walton County Transportation Planning Organization, Jim Wood, who also serves on the Destin City Council, says this project is a must-do.
Current funding for the widening project is on the books for 8-10 years down the road, Wood told The Log.
"The realities of congestion, safety, hurricane evacuation and the fear that some of these issues might drive visitors and/or businesses to take their efforts elsewhere, should current trends continue, make a very solid case for moving up the project to be funded now," he said. "It makes sense to pay for it now out of current dollars than to wait and pay with future dollars where inflation and other influences would make the price far higher."
The next step for Moore and other boosting the project is to present the letters to Sen. Don Gaetz, while requesting funding from local legislators and the Florida Department of Transportation.
Ideally, the group would like to have funding secured for a fall 2016 construction start date. For more information or questions about the project, email Moore at email@example.com.
"There is a lot of interest in the community for this project," Moore said.