PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WMBB) — Bonnie Farr plans her life around traffic on Panama City Beach.
She and her neighbors at the Ocean Mist housing development near Lantana Street are often trapped for significant amounts of time trying to get in and out of their homes.
“I don’t go anywhere,” she said. “If I go grocery shopping, I go at 7:30 in the morning on a Sunday.”
The most frustrating part can be the final few moments of her work day when she needs to go one block to get to her home. It can take 20 minutes just to go a few feet.
“Especially, when you are so close to home, you worked all day and you’re like I just want to get home,” she said. “I kind of want to park my car in the street and just walk.”
Farr said the situation was often difficult but it got much worse during this year’s Spring Break season and shows no sign of slowing down.
“That’s the concern. If we knew it’s a short term you deal with it,” she said. “But because it started so early and it hasn’t stopped it’s been every week since Spring Break and then you know, we’re headed into summer so I assume it’s going to be similar if maybe worse.”
It’s not a maybe. Keith Bryant, the man who oversees traffic issues in Bay County says it is going to get worse.
“It’s only going to get heavier as we go into the summer,” said Bryant, the chief infrastructure officer for Bay County. “Back Beach Road is designed for about 45,000 cars a day during the summer. We’re seeing 80 to 85,000 cars a day. So we’re at twice the capacity.”
These problems aren’t a surprise to the people who work for local municipalities, the county and the state government. These agencies plan years in advance to meet the area’s traffic needs and solve issues, if they can, before they become a problem.
“Years ago at 23rd and US 98, that intersection was the most congested intersection in Bay County,” said Ian Satter, a spokesman for Florida’s Department of Transportation. “If you drive through it today you wouldn’t know it. The flyover has really made a difference there in reducing congestion and improving safety.”
Satter also points to widening projects along the heavily trafficked north and south routes into and out of Bay County as another success. Long time residents will remember that those highways became parking lots whenever a hurricane came to town and the area was forced to evacuate, Bryant said.
But yesterday’s successes won’t solve today’s problems. Officials are already working on some areas. Phillip Griffitts Parkways, a road that officials hope will offer some relief to beach motorists, is already under construction.
The county is using money from its half-cent surtax to build a connector to Titus Road that will ease issues around North Bay Haven. And Bryant says two major projects, which together will cost well north of $100 million, will have a significant impact on traffic.
The first is to turn Back Beach Road into a six lane highway. When it is completed it will meet the need for the peak traffic the city is currently seeing on that stretch of road.
“It’s going to be right at the edge of a six lane capacity,” Bryant said.
The other project is widening and remodeling U.S. 231. It too will go to six lanes but officials also plan to add five flyovers to keep the cars moving. The first phase of that project? Coming in 2029.
“That’s right around the corner,” Bryant said.
He wasn’t joking. In the transportation world large scale projects typically take 10 years from conception to the first shovel of dirt. Initial planning takes a year or two, environmental studies take two years or so and then leaders have to elbow their way into state budgets where the needs of Bay County residents are weighed against the needs of people across the state, from Pensacola to Miami.
These are two of the biggest and most urgent projects the county faces. There are plenty of others, including work already being done on Highway 390, State Road 22, Jenks Avenue and East Avenue. Officials are also hoping a new roadway — Gulf Coast Parkway — will bring traffic from Callaway to Mexico Beach while avoiding Tyndall Air Force Base.
And while these projects will almost certainly make a difference, there will come a day where the asphalt simply runs out.
“We’re always looking at innovative ways in how we can improve traffic but there does come a point where there’s only so much widening you can do through an area there are only so many things you can engineer to handle traffic,” Satter said. “It is a balancing act.”
Still, that day is probably decades away and the people in charge of the problem remain optimistic.
“We’ve come a long way,” Bryant said. “It just takes time as we chip away at it.”