Okaloosa County seeks to make Santa Rosa Boulevard narrower, but more walkable

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News
Flowers, ornamental grasses and shrubs liven up the median on Santa Rosa Boulevard on Okaloosa Island. Okaloosa County commissioners on Tuesday approved a conceptual plan that calls for stormwater upgrades, lane reductions, a roundabout and a wider multi-use path on the north side of the street.

SHALIMAR — A proposed concept that calls for major lane changes on Santa Rosa Boulevard on Okaloosa Island received the Okaloosa County Commission’s unanimous approval but split support from members of the public Tuesday.

The four-lane, approximately 2-mile road extends past seven county-owned public beach accesses between U.S. Highway 98 and an Eglin Air Force Base gate.

The concept calls for a reduction in road lanes as motorists head west from U.S. 98: At the first beach access, the existing two westbound and two eastbound lanes would transition to two westbound lanes and one eastbound lane, and then narrow down to one lane in each direction starting at Pelican Drive.

Pelican Drive is just west of the fourth beach access.

More traffic news:Button-activated crosswalks to be installed on Okaloosa Island

And:Hit-and-runs, crashes involving pedestrians are up in Walton and Okaloosa

The overall concept also calls for stormwater upgrades, a roundabout by El Matador Condominiums near the west end of the road and construction of a 14-foot multi-use path on the north side of the street.

A roadside map shows Bike Ride No. 20 along Santa Rosa Boulevard on Okaloosa Island. Okaloosa County commissioners have approved a conceptual for the road that includes one lane in each direction direction beginning at Pelican Drive.

The multi-use path, which would be separated from the road, would replace the existing 5-foot-wide sidewalk and provide more room for pedestrians and golf cart drivers.

The commission directed county staff members Tuesday to start requesting qualifications from firms interested in designing the proposed changes. A firm could be selected by early spring, according to county Public Works Director Jason Autrey.

The project has a preliminary cost estimate of about $10 million. County half-cent sales tax money and other types of funding will be used to pay for the work.

The project might take place in conjunction with some of the work to replace the Brooks Bridge. Late next year, the Florida Department of Transportation plans to start about three or four years’ worth of construction on the new bridge, which will extend over Santa Rosa Boulevard.

Before the commission approved the conceptual changes, Okaloosa Island resident John Donovan told the board that there is “overwhelming opposition” to reducing the number of traffic lanes on Santa Rosa Boulevard.

“The island is crowded, particularly during tourist season,” he said.

A handful of other residents shared his opposition to the proposed lane reductions.

David Sherry, president of the Okaloosa Island Leaseholders Association, said the proposed changes will cause residents to ask, “‘What are those commissioners smoking?’”

But several other residents, such as Fort Walton Beach resident/Okaloosa Island property owner Matt Turpin, voiced support for the changes.

Okaloosa County commissioners on Tuesday approved a conceptual plan for Santa Rosa Boulevard on Okaloosa Island that calls for stormwater upgrades, lane reductions, a roundabout and a wider multi-use path on the north side of the street.

Turpin, who next year will run for the County Commission's District 2 seat now held by Carolyn Ketchel, said he thinks the conceptual changes will address stormwater and road problems along Santa Rosa Boulevard and “revitalize the gem that Okaloosa Island is.”

Heather Ruiz, chairwoman of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber board unanimously supports the overall concept.

In championing the project, Ketchel has argued reconfiguring the road so people can safely walk, ride bikes and push baby strollers down the boulevard will ultimately help reduce vehicle congestion and improve the area's quality of life.

"The vast majority of people want this,” said Ketchel, whose area of representation includes Okaloosa Island.

Button-activated, yellow flashing warning lights should be ready to be added to the pedestrian crosswalks on Santa Rosa Boulevard sometime this winter, according to Autrey.