Local and state leaders gathered at Pensacola City Hall in late January, and received some good news on the future of transportation infrastructure in the Florida Panhandle in general, and one bridge in particular.
Niceville Republican Don Gaetz served as M-C, announcing that $679 million will be spent on a number of projects in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties. Those include State Road 87 in Santa Rosa County, and Highway 29 in Escambia County. Other projects involve replacing one and a third miles of railroad tracks at the Port of Pensacola. Funding for all projects is 100 percent from the state Department of Transportation.
And then, what many came to hear – how and when the Three Mile Bridge, connecting Pensacola and Gulf Breeze, would be replaced. After touching on the rumors swirling around about the possibility of a toll bridge, Gaetz made the official announcement:
“We have secured the funding, and secured the commitment of the Governor and the Department of Transportation, to spend $595.6 million of state funds to build that bridge with no tolls,” said Gaetz.
That prompted a standing ovation and high fives around the crowded conference room. Construction of the new bridge connecting Pensacola and Gulf Breeze is expected to begin sometime in 2015, pending acquisition of environmental and right-of-way permits.
On hand to answer what Sen. Gaetz called “the tough questions” was Brian Blanchard of the state Department of Transportation. He warned that the gas tax, which funds such projects, is not a sustainable funding source, especially in light of anticipated mandatory increases in vehicle fuel efficiency.
For Senate President Don Gaetz, the state money being pumped into Panhandle transportation projects didn’t necessarily reflect his new clout. Instead, he credited the work of the local legislative delegation in securing the funding.
With Gaetz heading the Senate and Rep. Marti Coley of Marianna the House Speaker Pro Tem, many – including Gaetz -- felt that the announcement could be the start of a new place at the table for the Florida Panhandle in its dealings with their downstate counterparts.