NICEVILLE — Grateful they've caught a break with a mid-week Fourth of July, local officials still are thrilled with the results of a new vacation-season traffic plan near the Mid-Bay Bridge, a longtime summer weekend vehicular choke point.
"I have no doubt it's working," said Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office Capt. Charlie Nix, the office's East District commander. "We've had a bunch of people tell us 'Thank you.' "
For some time, summer Saturday afternoons — check-in time for the hotel rooms and condominiums jamming the coastal beaches in and around Destin — have stalled traffic along the Mid-Bay Bridge Connector, the most direct route to Destin for southbound travelers.
Looking for ways around the heavy traffic heading to the tolled bridge, many motorists have been trying to use White Point Road, a nearby street that serves a number of residential subdivisions, to bypass the connector traffic.
Other travelers have used the North Lakeshore Drive exit and entrance ramps at the Mid-Bay Bridge Connector in an attempt to leap-frog other connector traffic.
As a result, residents living along the supposed shortcuts have been virtually imprisoned in their neighborhoods on Saturdays.
"We could get out (of our neighborhoods) but we couldn't get back in," Lakeshore Drive resident Lonnie Oswalt said.
In addition, according to Nix, residents were subjected to unsavory behavior that included some motorists stepping outside their vehicles to urinate.
Last spring, dozens of residents attended a town hall organized by Okaloosa County Commissioner Kelly Windes to propose solutions to the traffic issues. Subsequently, representatives of the Sheriff's Office, the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority and Jason Autrey, the county's public works director, met to devise a plan.
In the end, they decided simply to close off the southbound exit and entrance ramps from the connector onto Lakeshore Drive, and to keep vacation traffic off White Point Road from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturdays from the Memorial Day weekend through the Labor Day weekend.
"This is WORKING ... ," Oswalt and his wife, Kathleen wrote in a Sunday email to the Daily News. "Since they have blocked the southbound off and on ramps at the Lakeshore Drive exit, White Point Road is clear; Lakeshore Drive is clear."
"It's really helped to take the strain off of White Point Road," Nix agreed.
The Oswalts were among a number of residents who suggested at last year's town hall that blocking the Lakeshore Drive ramps was the key to controlling traffic, Lonnie Oswalt said.
According to Autrey, the changes haven't added to the delay and congestion feeding toward the toll plaza at the Mid-Bay Bridge.
Nix said deputies working in the area have on occasion adjusted the time that the restrictions are left in place, sometimes starting earlier and other times leaving them in place later, based on traffic volumes on summer Saturdays. The latest that the restrictions have remained is 6:45 p.m. early in the vacation season, he said.
Autrey didn't have any ready explanation for why the changes are working so well, but he did venture a guess.
"I think it's efficiency," he surmised. Traffic may be flowing more smoothly, he speculated, because motorists aren't dealing with other motorists' decisions to leave and then try to re-enter the connector.
Routinely, the long Fourth of July weekend would be the ultimate test for traffic planning, Autrey said Monday. But because the holiday itself falla on Wednesday this year, travelers' arrivals likely have been more spread out than normal.
"We caught a bit of a break because the Fourth of July is in the middle of the week," Autrey said.
Autrey and other county officials plan to meet after this year's tourist season to assess how the traffic plan has worked and determine whether any tweaking is needed. Autrey expressed some optimism Monday that the plan likely won't need any adjustment.
"I try not to use the word 'fix,' " Autrey said, but he added that the current plan is "probably something we're going to institute for years to come."
Funding for deputies who work the Saturday duty comes from tourist development funds that will remain available in coming years, according to Autrey. The bill for this vacation season is estimated at $20,000, Autrey said.
Asked Monday for his assessment of the new traffic plan, Windes said, "It's working as well, or maybe better, than we thought it would. Kudos to the Mid-Bay Bridge (Authority) and the Sheriff's Office."
Autrey also had some praise for the people who got involved in the issue, calling the plan "a prime example of how our citizens can work" with their local government.
The Oswalts have taken time to personally thank one of the deputies working the Saturday traffic detail, and they used their email to extend thanks to the other deputies working in and around their neighborhood.
"This is tough duty in this heat, and we wanted to express our thanks and gratitude to these deputies and the sheriff department for their support," the couple wrote.