PANAMA CITY, Fla. — When it comes to ‘malfunction junction,’ or the intersection of Highway 231 and US 98 in Panama City, most residents agree there needs to be a solution to the traffic congestion issues the intersection faces daily.
“Everybody has talked about ‘we need to do something,’ and I agree,” said Lynne Schneider, a Panama City resident and the president of the group, Panama City Growing Strong.
However, there’s disagreement about that solution.
The Florida Department of Transportation has proposed a flyover that would send thru-traffic over major connecting roads, like Jenks and Harrison Avenue, allowing travelers to get to and from Highway 231 quickly.
The project is part of a long-term plan that the Florida Department of Transportation has to widen Highway 231.
“We are going to provide that access to 231,” FDOT Spokesperson Ian Satter said in December. “We’re going to make that intersection safer.”
Several residents as well as Panama City leaders feel that a flyover is not the best option for the city or local businesses as it rebuilds with a strong emphasis on Downtown and bringing tourism to the area.
The Crazy Donkey Mexican Restaurant sits just yards away from where the flyover would begin.
“I think it’s a good idea for me but for the other businesses, honestly I think they’re going to struggle big time,” said owner, Santiago Solorio.
He says he’s lucky his business wouldn’t be impacted by the flyover but if it did, he feels as if he would have to close his doors.
“Because I cannot survive like that because I need the tourists, I really need the tourists,” Solorio said.
Panama City Growing Strong held a public meeting regarding those concerns on Wednesday night; City Manager Mark McQueen was a guest speaker.
“We don’t believe that A) it solves the problem that they were asked to achieve, because you still have a traffic light intersection at the top of the flyover, you still have to stop for the train,” said McQueen. “Secondly, it’s going to have a potential negative impact to the economics of the downtown and Panama City in general.”
McQueen voiced those concerns to the Bay County Transportation Planning Organization last month, asking them to consider re-tasking FDOT to open the plans again in order to look deeper at alternative options.
According to McQueen, that request was neither accepted nor denied.
If FDOT were to re-open the study, Satter says it would severely stall the project.
“We would have to begin our process all over again if we were to look at the city of Panama City’s option,” Satter said. “We would have to do our project development and environmental study. That would take about three years. After that, we would have to look at the design of that project which would take another two years.”
There also is a possibility that the project would lose funding.
“We don’t have it funded for construction in the next five years but we do have right-of-way,” Satter said. “Those funds would have to be used somewhere else where projects are ready to go.”
However, McQueen suggested at Wednesday’s meeting that it may be better to hold off, in order to determine if another option would be better for the city in the long-run rather than to move forward with the flyover that he says does not address all the problems it had been tasked to address and could create more issues along the way.
Residents were able to hear from McQueen on Wednesday and ask questions regarding the current proposal as well as a potential alternate proposal that the city has come up with, through ‘complete streets.’
“[It] is a grid pattern that allows more options for motorists at ground level,” said McQueen.
He said along with complete streets, a trench option for the train so it doesn’t affect traffic could also be considered.
“[We need to] make sure we’re doing the right thing for not just the citizens of what we consider Uptown Panama City but Downtown Panama City as well,” said Janis Boatright, a Panama City resident at Wednesday’s meeting.
Boatright says staying informed is the best thing residents can do, as well as making their voices heard to the officials that will ultimately make the decisions on their behalf.
“So that they feel comfortable as they’re making decisions, that they’re making the correct ones,” she said.
FDOT will be re-presenting their plan addressing the traffic stop and train issues McQueen brought to the TPO’s attention at the Bay County TPO meeting on February 6th.