It’s been 20 years since the Mid-Bay Bridge opened to the public, but instead of focusing on the past, Jim Vest has his eyes set on the future.
With the number of cars traveling across the 3.6-mile span increasing at a steadfast pace, it's only a matter of time before the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority's executive director says construction on a second bridge could take place.
"It's really going to depend on when the traffic volume warrants it," Vest said. "We're probably 10 to 12 years out on that right now."
Based on studies from traffic consultants, Vest told The Log the average daily traffic on the bridge, which spans the Choctawhatchee Bay from Destin to Niceville, would have to increase to about 30,000 cars daily before they could justify construction of an additional span that would likely cost about $196 million and take three years to complete. The bridge is currently averaging about 20,000 trips daily.
Although the cost of construction sounds staggering, Vest said it's actually "pretty reasonable" when it comes to a transportation project.
"The (Hwy) 331 Bridge, which is shorter than our bridge, just came in at $118 million," he said about the recently approved project that would construct a second two-lane span from south Walton County to Freeport.
In addition to the construction of a second bridge across Choctawhatchee Bay, plans are also in place for the eventual expansion (four laning) of the current connector project that runs from the toll booth on the north side of the bay to State Road 85 north of Niceville.
All told, the Mid-Bay Bridge Connector project and the Mid-Bay Bridge itself will add an additional 11 miles of roadway to Okaloosa County, all while providing shorter travel times to "Niceville, the coastal communities and the areas east of Niceville along SR 20 by avoiding 14 traffic signals along the current route." A total of five interchange bridges and five stream crossings will be constructed.
Once the connector project wraps up, which is expected to happen in January 2014, Vest said things at the office would quiet down a bit as they return to their normal day-to-day operations and number crunching.
"It's going to keep us pretty busy, as we analyze where we are at," he said. "We're going to be looking at the traffic on the connector for a while, and it's all going to be electronic tolling, so we will be monitoring how that goes."
A lot has been written about the Mid-Bay Bridge in the past 20 years. At one point it had been called "the bridge to nowhere," which bothered Vest, but looking back at his time with the bridge authority, he said there have been more accomplishments than headaches.
"The improvements we've made over the years have made a difference, and just the improvements with phase one have made a difference," he said. "We've done what no one else would do, or that no one else had the money to do."
"The goal of the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority is to find a better traffic solution to get across, in both directions, the Choctawhatchee Bay, and I think we've done that," he added.
And while expansion may be a relatively distant thought to most, it's not too far ahead for Vest, who is always thinking about "what's next."
"We just have to keep analyzing our growth as we go, and that's why we keep changing our projections," he said. "Every year we review the performance for the past year and make our projections moving forward."
"There's always something to do," Vest added.