Could Walton County become the nation’s leader in uniquely solving its traffic problems?
As strange as it may sound, the state’s Senate and House believe it’s possible and have budgeted $1.96 million toward making it happen.
First-year Sen. George Gainer of Panama City announced this week that Northwest Florida is the big winner in the just-concluded 2017 state legislative session.
And one of those big winners is County Highway 30A.
Gainer secured $300 million that will come to his eight counties in District 2, which were most impacted by the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill. Money from the Gulf Coast Economic Corridor Act will be used for projects and programs to help transform the economy.
Monies allotted to Walton County include $1.5 million to the city of DeFuniak Springs for County Road 280A; $100,000 to the city of Freeport Cultural Center; and $1.96 million for Walton County’s County Highway 30A intermodal transportation project.
Walton County Restore Coordinator Billy Williams said the intermodal transportation movement started a couple of years ago and is a collaboration between the county, state, and other public and private sectors to find a solution to the traffic congestion on 30A.
“If we don’t, it will affect tourism and people will stop coming here,” said Williams.
The end goal in securing these funds from the state is to look at innovative technology and how it can be used to find a solution, he said.
“We are looking at what we can do with technology and at an actual innovation center,” he said.
The county has already been working with the University of Florida and the University of West Florida toward that end.
“We want an innovative center here that will drive how we can use this technology and show others,” he said.
Williams has already traveled to Washington D.C. to ask the Federal Transportation Authority for a designation as a rural innovation pilot lab for the development of autonomous vehicle use.
Money from the state will assist in the next stage of what needs to be done as the county looks at what it can do with technological solutions.
“When you go to Disney and park your car, they have cool ways to get you where you want to go all over the park using electronic vehicles. That’s something like what we are looking at for here – electronic vehicles that would interconnect throughout the county, not just east to west, but also north to south,” Williams said. “Walton County is leading the initiative on this.”
With this already passing the House and Senate, all that is needed now is Gov. Rick Scott’s signature. Once it has passed the governor’s office, the county will put it out for bid for procurement engineering and move forward with the Florida Department of Transportation for the next phase.
“The goal is to look at a virtual city and a test track from academia to hands-on building a building. This money will tell us how to do this, and what components we would need to make it a reality,” he said.
Williams said the Owl’s Head area in Freeport is being looked at for constructing the building.
“We want to be along the 331 corridor,” he said. “And we are looking for academic and private partners. No other rural sector in the country is doing this. What we want is very high technology. We want something that will enable us to move workers. It’s about quality of life.”
Data shows that 38 percent of people who fly into the Panama City airport are traveling to Walton County for vacation.
“We want them to get into automated vehicles or board boats to bring them here. It’s exciting,” he said. “When we look at other counties we are seeing what we can do better. Walton County is so unique. We have 4 million visitors coming to our beach and they will quit coming if we don’t do something.”
Williams has spoken to Walton County’s School Superintendent about what can be done to facilitate career opportunities and forming a partnership.
“It’s coming,” he said. “We want to be leaders in the country and I am thankful this made it through the budget as it is Important.”
Plans are to conduct Town Hall meetings.
A workshop will be held at the Tourist Development Council building Saturday and Sunday starting at 9 a.m. Saturday. Staff from the United States Treasury and elected officials will be in attendance and participating to plan a collaborative and strategic multi-year implementation plan for this project.