CRESTVIEW — Just how long does it take to get from one end of Crestview to the other in the afternoon?
We drove from the overpass at Duke Field to Airport Road along State Road 85 at the north end of town at two different times on a weekday afternoon. The first trip started at 2:10 p.m. and ended at 2:28 p.m., while the second trip took twice as long, starting at 4:40 p.m. and ending at 5:16 p.m.
Crestview resident Donna Simpler has been commuting to her job in Fort Walton Beach from the north end of Crestview since 1985. Her commute, which she says can be up to an hour and 15 minutes, used to be much shorter.
“The most aggravating part is when you get to Duke Field, all the way to Walmart, and you’re stuck,” she said. “When I was a kid, I rode my bicycle all over Crestview. There was no traffic.”
Simpler has tried using alternate routes, such as taking 285 from Niceville, or taking PJ Adams to go around the southern end of Highway 85. But she found that neither route shortened her commute.
Solutions to the traffic problem in Crestview have been discussed for years with little to show for it. One idea that’s been discussed at length is a bypass around the city.
But a project of that scope can be difficult to get approved. It’s not only the city that has to agree to the project, but the Okaloosa County Commission and Florida Department of Transportation as well.
“That’s the number one topic that’s been on my radar since even before I came into office,” City Council President J.B. Whitten said. “The biggest problem we have is our north-south road is a state road, so we can’t do anything without FDOT.”
Once a project like that does get approved by all of the government agencies involved, it can still take years to get completed. So for now, the city is working on smaller measures that can get easier approval, such as expanding roads that run parallel to Highway 85, and connecting Raspberry Road to PJ Adams Parkway, a project that is estimated to cost $8 million.
Crestview’s growth over the years has been a driving factor in exacerbating the traffic situation, but Simpler says there’s more to it than just growth.
“There are no jobs here,” she said. “I’ve been working in Fort Walton since 1985. There’s nothing here, so we all have to travel.”
People that commute from the southern end of the county end up in the same traffic as Eglin Air Force Base and Duke Field employees who have found that housing in Crestview is cheaper than in the surrounding areas. Simpler said the traffic is noticeably worse on her way home.
“Going in the morning is fine,” she said. “But in the afternoon, you don’t feel good. You just want to get home. And if there’s an accident, you’re stuck.”
Whitten says the work being discussed along PJ Adams, which includes widening the road, may not be enough to solve the larger traffic problem.
“The bottleneck doesn’t start there,” he said. “It’s too late at PJ Adams. It starts way back, coming off from 123.”
But solutions to that problem, including a potential bypass starting well south of the city around Rattlesnake Bluff Road, could be even more difficult because of another government agency that can veto the project – Eglin Air Force Base.
“My understanding is it doesn’t actually infringe on Eglin property, but it’s close enough it infringes on their mission, so they don’t want that kind of traffic over there by their reservation,” Whitten said.
Any solution on the south side of town that runs close to Eglin property would require the signoff of the base’s commanding officer. Despite that, the city and county continue to work on solutions that will keep pace with Crestview’s growth.
“Previous city councils have not ignored this. Previous mayors have not ignored this. They haven’t made any headway,” Whitten said. “And I can’t guarantee anybody I’ll make any headway, but I sure spend a lot of time on it.”