DESTIN — These days, a drive along U.S. Highway 98 between Airport Road and the Walton County line can seem almost like a carnival ride, with rows of orange barrels and stretches of low concrete barricades marking neck-snapping — when traffic is moving, anyway — switches back and forth as construction equipment moves close by.
But there is considerable method to what can seem, from steering wheel level, like capricious engineering madness, according to Kelli Rice, the Florida Department of Transportation's construction project manager for the section of U.S. 98 where a third lane is being added in each direction.
It's simple, really, Rice said: While crews with Panama City-based GAC Contractors Inc., which won the $35 million contract for that section of the road, work on one side of the highway, traffic is shifted to the other side. And under its contract, GAC has to maintain a four-lane configuration of the road.
"From a bird's-eye view, it is (simple)," Rice said. "But I can understand that, driving it, you're shifted to the left, then shifted to the right. We try to do a good job of making sure we've got the appropriate signage up, and of course, we do have the speed limit at 35 mph where we're doing the work."
The story is much the same for the remainder of the local work on U.S. 98, which stretches from the Okaloosa-Walton County line east through part of Miramar Beach, according to Rice.
Rice said it's also important to note that the project goes beyond simply repaving existing lanes and adding a new lane.
"We're not just milling (removing part of the existing road surface) and resurfacing the four lanes that are already out there and then just adding a lane," she explained. "We're actually completely reconstructing all of the lanes to bring them up to our standard."
Along the portion of the project for which Rice is responsible, work is proceeding in three simultaneous phases: Airport Road to Henderson Beach Road, Henderson Beach Road to Matthew Boulevard, and Kel-Win Circle (near Regatta Bay) to the Walton County line. There is an "exception area" — where the road is already three lanes, from near Matthew Boulevard to near Kel-Win Circle, Rice noted.
Work on the north side — the westbound lanes — of the first phase of the project from Airport Road to Henderson Beach Road has been completed, Rice said, so traffic now is shifted so work can be done on the south side of the road — the eastbound lanes. The second phase of the project, from Henderson Beach Road to Matthew Boulevard, is at roughly the same stage, according to Rice.
Those two phases of the project will be in their current configuration until roughly the end of this year, Rice said. But when work is done on the eastbound lanes, traffic will be shifted again so GAC crews can work on the median, bringing it up to road level and installing traffic separation devices. Completion of the work is, at best, still more than a year away, she said.
"There is a chance ... that we could get six lanes open in (those two phases), maybe by late summer of 2020," Rice said.
The third phase of the work Rice is overseeing, from Kel-Win Circle to the Walton County line, is a bit different because it included installation of drainage infrastructure in the median. Otherwise, the construction process there will be much like the other two phases, Rice said.
Overall, it could be the end of 2020, or "possibly early '21," before all of the widening work between Destin and the Walton County line is done, Rice said.
"Everything is weather-dependent, so it's hard for me to give an exact date," she explained.
Another challenge, soon to be keenly felt as vacation season gets into full swing, is heavy traffic.
"We've been lucky that we've been able to do a lot of our work behind barrier walls," Rice said. "But the traffic is always a factor. People have accidents. People aren't always paying attention. Anything can happen out there."
Another challenge, particularly important during vacation season, is keeping access to businesses open, Rice noted.
"We try to make things as painless as we can," Rice said. "We try to make sure we keep their driveway turnouts maintained as good as we can. We also have the business signs that we install for them (blue directional signs installed next to travel lanes) to try to help the public navigate."
Work on Rice's section of the project is "about 10 percent" ahead of schedule, she said.
"The contractor has been very aggressive," she said, "which is another reason you see a lot of the lane shifts, because they're working on all three phases and they're trying to get all the work done."