FORT WALTON BEACH — An unprecedented $974 million in state funding is headed for Northwest Florida transportation projects, Sen. Don Gaetz announced Thursday.
Gaetz, the Republican from Niceville who is the Senate president, said negotiations he spearheaded to fund 10 new projects in the region ended Thursday morning.
The plan includes setting aside $44.5 million for widening State Roads 123 and 87 and moving their construction dates up, Gaetz said at a meeting at the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce. The projects are now slated to begin in 2015.
More than $600 million also has been set aside to build a new three-mile U.S. Highway 98 bridge between Gulf Breeze and Pensacola, Gaetz said. The long-sought project will be publicly funded and will not require tolls, as some people feared.
Gaetz said the Northwest Florida legislative delegation negotiated with Department of Transportation officials and Gov. Rick Scott to make sure the funds were secure in the state’s work plan.
“Not as a hope, not as a maybe, not as a might be, but … we’ve been able to get the money moved up and we’ve been able to get the schedule adjusted so that these activities will begin within the next 24 months,” Gaetz said.
He said DOT officials told him the $974 million is the largest single transportation initiative for Northwest Florida in history.
It’s been a long time coming, Gaetz said.
“Those of us who live in this community have been grinding our teeth for some time,” he said. “Right or wrong, we’ve had the perception that we haven’t got our fair share.”
Gaetz was named Senate president in November, which may have helped him direct the money to the region. He said DOT officials pay more attention to him now.
The SR 123 and SR 87 projects were already in the DOT pipeline, but until Thursday’s agreement funding hadn’t been assured, Gaetz said.
“They were in the thinking stage,” he said after the meeting. “But now we have a commitment for funding, a commitment that they will be built and an aggressive upgraded timeline.”
The SR 123 expansion and improvement project had been planned for 2018 if funds could be secured. The project is now slated to begin in 2015 with $20.6 million set aside for it, Gaetz said.
He said keeping traffic moving between the north and south parts of Okaloosa County has been an increasing priority, especially since the arrival of the Army 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) south of Crestview.
“We know that it’s important to have those arteries move seamlessly back and forth,” he said.
The state has also set aside $23.9 million to complete the widening of SR 87 in Santa Rosa County to four lanes. The new lanes will run from the boundary of Eglin Air Force Base to two miles south of the Yellow River.
None of the new projects will be tolled, but state Rep. Doug Broxson said people should expect future transportation efforts to include tolls because of funding shortfalls.
“We have done our best to make sure we dodged that bullet on these projects,” said Broxson, R-Midway.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, Don Gaetz’s son, said the state’s decision to invest nearly a billion dollars in Northwest Florida is a testament to the area’s importance and success as an economic generator.
“To get these folks to agree to make this kind of investment means you are doing your job,” he told the business leaders gathered at the Chamber of Commerce.
He said he believes the $974 million will open the door to the potential for future infrastructure improvements. He said everyone could probably agree that more must be done to ease congestion on U.S. 98 and that opening a pass to the Gulf of Mexico near Navarre Beach would be a boon to the economy there.
“These are things that could also be on the horizon, but know that I think this is an excellent start. It’s an excellent opportunity for us, and let’s go seize it,” the Fort Walton Beach Republican said.
Don Gaetz agreed that the investment will create more opportunities, not only for future infrastructure projects but for the region to continue to grow, draw more businesses and connect Florida to businesses nationwide.
“I am absolutely convinced — and so are our colleagues — that the road to the future of Florida runs right through here,” he said.
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Lauren Sage Reinlie at 850-315-4443 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRnwfdn.