More than 360 people crowded into the Days Inn and Suites Navarre Conference Center Jan. 15 to view and comment on plans to widen U.S. Highway 98 and put a flyover through Navarre.
After more than two years of work, Florida Department of Transportation officials presented their top chosen option based on the data. The recommended alternative for Navarre presented by FDOT is titled the Tight Urban Diamond Interchange Roundabout Hybrid.
Broken down into its parts, this plan includes:
- “Flyover” raised highway starting at Andorra Street and ending at Ortega Street
- Low-speed local roads on either side of the flyover with sidewalks and bike lanes
- Vacant space under the flyover
- Improved diamond-style traffic light at the intersection of 98 and Highway 87
- Roundabout interchange at the intersection of 98 and Navarre Beach Bridge
- Additional roundabout just north of the first connecting to community streets
County Commissioner Dave Piech said he does not support the recommended alternative presented. He spoke with constituents throughout the meeting and reviewed the information provided by FDOT.
“After talking with a lot of folks– I know there are folks in favor of the flyover and against it– I am still of the mindset that an at-grade option would be in the best interest of the Navarre community,” he said.
His opinion was shared with others that commented on the project.
“I was a little surprised the at-grade option was not still being presented,” Piech said of a ground level solution previously evaluated by FDOT. “I understand their mission is to identify the most effective and cost-efficient solution to move traffic.”
But Piech said there are other factors to consider than just moving cars through the community he represents.
Navarre resident and realtor Jerry Foster said the recommended alternative does not reflect an understanding of Navarre as a community.
“The reality is we don’t need a three-story expressway in beautiful downtown Navarre. We really don’t. It takes away from the beauty of where we live,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t understand how you can come into our community and not understand these things.”
Developer Merg Hoffman of Merganser Enterprises Inc. is working on a 33-acre retail development to include restaurants, a movie theater, a book store, a home goods-type store and other retailers at the northwestern corner of Highway 87 and 98.
He cautioned that the flyover could hinder attempts to grow retail in the community.
“Our concern is we are trying to attract retailers to the heart of Navarre, and we are going to build a flyover that screaming through the heart of your town at 60 miles per hour. We are going to ask them to stop in Navarre and buy lunch and seek entertainment,” he said.
He said other developments throughout the panhandle would not have succeeded with this type of highway setup.
Other speakers and meeting attendants said they feared the area under the flyover would become a place for area homeless to camp out. Piech said that is a possibility.
“FDOT is not going to fund what is developed under the overpass,” Piech said. “I get concerned with people seeing all these renderings of things under it, but it would be the county tax dollars that would have to fund that.”
Not everyone who commented was against the project. TC’s Front Porch owner Bob Benaquis spoke in favor of the flyover. His restaurant will likely have to be relocated due to the project, but he said the relief of congestion could promote new business.
According to FDOT’s assessment, no impacts would be made to “community focal points” by the construction of the flyover.
“The flyover will definitely have an impact on that local area not just on the businesses but on the aesthetics of the area,” he said. “While it may move traffic more efficiently, we have to look at all the impacts.”
He said that includes visually separating the beach from the main land.
The entire length of the project is expected to displace 2 residences and 27 businesses, with 16 of those properties being in Navarre. There will also be 216 other parcels with some type of right-of-way impact along the length of the project.
Among those impacted would be the newly built Dewey Destin restaurant, and the Burger King in Navarre would be completely removed.
FDOT is legally required to provide compensation for relocation of properties completely taken. All together FDOT estimates the cost for right-of-way acquisition to be $61.2 million.
The overall estimated cost of the project is expected to be $335.6 million from Portside Drive to the eastern Okaloosa County line.
Foster questioned whether the public comments were going to change FDOT’s plans or not.
“I have this feeling it is fated completed. We have 200 people standing here tonight trying to voice their opinion…but you are going to do what you are going to do. I don’t think our input really matters that much,” he said.
The comment was answered with cheers and applause from the crowd.
Piech said the public should not assume the process is already decided. He pointed out that public comment will remain open until Jan. 25 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and other government agencies get a say.
The Santa Rosa County Commissioners all have seats on the local Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) which will also review the project, and Piech said they intend to express their opinion on the matter. Commissioner Lane Lynchard of Gulf Breeze sits on the regional TPO as Santa Rosa’s representative as well, speaking and voting on behalf of the county’s interests.
To the east, the Okaloosa-Walton TPO also has a non-voting seat for a Santa Rosa representative to share their county’s perspective, a responsibility Piech said he plans to take on.
“It is not a done deal,” Piech said. “The TPO weighs in. There is still a process that has to be followed. This process was to identify the most efficient and cost-effective option. This part of the lengthy process is coming to an end but there is still a lengthy process to go.”
And funding for the design phase of the portion of the project running east from Bergen Road to Ortega Street has not been funded. Design funding for other phases is scheduled for 2021-2023, and
This means a definitive start date for work will be years away.
Piech said regardless of that timeline, citizens need to submit their comments prior to the Jan. 25 deadline.