OKALOOSA ISLAND — A contract for the construction of Okaloosa County’s proposed multi-use path for bicyclists and pedestrians on Okaloosa Island might be awarded in the fall of 2019, according to Greg Kisela, deputy county administrator of operations.
At Tuesday’s county Tourist Development Council meeting, Kisela discussed a variety of pre-construction tasks that still must be completed.
The 12-foot-wide, approximately 4.3-mile-long path would stretch along U.S. Highway 98 from Pier Road, east of the Brooks Bridge to the Marler Bridge. It would serve as a portion of the state's planned Great Northwest Coast Regional Connector, which would run from the Florida-Alabama line to south of Tallahassee.
Kisela said the county's conceptual designs for the path are about 30 percent complete. The county also still needs to secure funding and environmental permitting for the project, and is working with Eglin Air Force Base and the Florida Department of Transportation to determine whether the path could run along the north or south side of U.S. 98.
“We’re not asking you to fund anything today” for the $3 million to $4 million project, Kisela told the TDC.
He said the county later could pursue state and federal grants that might, along with potential county bed tax money, help pay for the path's construction.
Several residents at the meeting voiced their approval of the path, which would be placed at least 3 feet away from the road.
The residents included Andi Crawford, whose husband was killed while he was riding his bicycle along U.S. 98 on the island in 2012. Harry Robert Crawford, 63, died after a vehicle hit him while he was pedaling to an Easter sunrise service.
“I try not to go to Destin because I pass his memorial, but every time I come home, I am very distracted by counting the crosses” of other accident victims along the highway, Andi told TDC members. “I really want you to think about this, so nobody else has to be hurt.”
Niceville resident Rhea Reynolds, who hit Harry Crawford with her vehicle, was later sentenced to 20 years in prison for leaving the scene of an accident with death.
Before Reynolds was arrested, Crawford’s family had publicized the case by placing signs and a bicycle at the crash site along U.S. 98. The bicycle still stands at that spot today.
Longtime local attorney David Simpson, who represented Andi Crawford in the court proceedings, said U.S. 98 on Okaloosa Island is the most dangerous 5-mile stretch of highway in the county.
“All you got to do is try to count the crosses on that highway, and you can’t, because you’ll be so distracted going left and right, left and right,” Simpson said while quickly turning his head. “You always have to make two trips to count them. Some of those (crosses are for) pedestrians and bicyclists.”
Steve Fikar, bike safety coordinator for the Niceville-based Emerald Coast Cyclists cycling club, said the club no longer sanctions rides along the island portion of U.S. 98 because it’s “a deathtrap.” He urged the TDC to support the multi-use path.
But Okaloosa Island resident David Sherry said he is concerned that public funding costs, including maintenance expenses, for the possible path “would crowd out funding for higher Okaloosa Island priorities like our beaches.”
Andi Crawford returned to the podium after Sherry spoke.
“If (the decision) comes to sand or human life, I go with human life,” she said.
Members of the Okaloosa Island Leaseholders Association, along with County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel, also support the path.
Ketchel, whose district includes Okaloosa Island, said after Tuesday’s meeting that the TDC and commission will consider county funding assistance after the designs are completed and Eglin’s approval is secured.
The path “will increase tourism and it will save lives,” she said. “It will be much safer than riding along the highway now.”
In other business Tuesday, the TDC approved funding three additional lifeguards and equipment, at a total cost of about $53,000, at local beaches through Labor Day.
One of the ifeguards will work on Okaloosa Island and two will work in Destin. At least one of the guards in Destin will work at Norriego Point, which began being restored last fall.
While restrooms, dune crossovers and other projects are still in the works for Norriego Point, certain parts of it are open to the public.