Bridge Authority aims to ‘speed things up’ with Mid-Bay connector project

Matt Algarin
Once completed, the Mid-Bay Bridge connector project will allow motorists to move faster as they travel north and south, as they will be able to bypass Niceville and skip 14 traffic lights.

Work on the Mid-Bay Bridge connector is on schedule, and Jim Vest says the new bypass road is expected to open by January 2014.

“It’s definitely going to speed things up,” said the director of the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority. “You are going to avoid 14 stop lights through Niceville.”

Currently under construction, the Mid-Bay connector project will ultimately tie together the north side of the bridge and toll plaza with SR85, immediately north of Niceville.

Not only will the connector road speed things up, Vest said it would provide an improved evacuation route during storms.

The project, which will use land leased from Eglin Air Force base for the next 50 years, is broken into three phases. All told, the project sits on about 99 percent military land.

The first phase of the connector project opened in May. The 1.5-mile stretch of roadway connects the tollbooth to SR20 in Niceville, and will ultimately run through to Range Road.

Phase two will run about 5.6 miles from Range Road to SR285. The final phase will stretch 2.5 miles from SR285 to SR85 north of College Boulevard.

Looking at the progress to date, Vest said the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority has come a long way since it was created through legislation back in 1986. When construction on the bridge began in 1991, a five-cent local option gas tax was used to help finance the project.

Like most people refinance their homes, the bridge authority has refinanced a couple of times since the bridge opened in 1993. While the projects debt has grown tremendously over they years, Vest said it was a calculated move in order to fund the connector project. The original debt of $91 million has grown to $262 million.

“If we had done nothing and just sat here, the bride would probably be paid off,” Vest said. “But we leveraged it to make infrastructure improvements.”

That’s also meant higher tolls for motorists. In 2010, the authority enacted a toll hike of 50 cents. Currently, motorists with a SunPass will pay $2 to cross the 3.6-mile bridge. Others will pay $3. Annually, the bridge tolls total about $15 million in revenue.

Once the connector is completed, Vest said his team could shift their focus to another project — building an additional span parallel to the current bridge. It’s always been in the plans, he said.

The additional span could possibly rise as early as 2025, but Vest said the bridge authority would ideally have to see the amount of traffic on the bridge increase.

For now though, Vest and his team are anxiously watching the construction unfold in front of their eyes, especially since the project might not have happened if it wasn’t for the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority.

“It’s coming along nicely,” he said. “The Mid-Bay Bridge connector would probably never have been built by the FDOT (due to funding).”