On June 10 around noon, I received a frantic call from Austin Mont, Director of the West Florida Regional Planning Council. He was calling me as incoming TPO Chair to express grave concerns about the Pensacola Bay Bridge.
Despite the tenor of the call, I did not rush to action. I first contacted two state officials, one staff and one elected, who confirmed what I had been told. If the bridge process is stopped, the money will go back to the state treasury and require appropriation from the legislature (a body that no longer includes a Senate President from our area who originally secured the funds).
I have spent time protecting monies related to the BP settlement from being reappropriated by this legislature, so I know how difficult that task is. I also received confirmation that DOT will have to replace the Pensacola Bay Bridge, but it does not have to be free. A toll can be assessed for the cost of added capacity.
I did share this information with Gulf Breeze Mayor Matt Dannheisser so he would have full information before taking action on his personal request. Mayor Dannheisser then made his own decision.
In addition, there was a second issue expressed by Mr. Mont related to cost for public right of way (ROW) for which there was no allocation. I communicated this both by phone and email to Buz Eddy, Gulf Breeze City Manager. While I too have issues with the lack of public participation, none of my emails have been related to transparency but rather cost.
To educate the public, the city of Gulf Breeze wants $13 million for ROW that other jurisdictions donate to projects for the public good. To put that figure in perspective, $13 million would have covered the safety improvements Escambia County is making to Olive Road, a road Escambia County had to take from the state because we could not get the state funding for the 10 years I have been in office.
In fact, $13 million is 2.5 years of Alabama-Florida TPO capacity and safety funding, meaning average neighborhoods in Escambia County would have to go without any safety or road improvements from the state during that time. This should be concerning to any Escambia County resident. Asking Escambia County to go without seems to put the “meanness” on the other side.
If the argument were solely on transparency and public participation and not money, then you would find me fully in support as I have been at the TPO. At my suggestion, we have offered Escambia County facilities to hold a public meeting between plan bridge design submittal and award at the last TPO. The problem is this project is a design/build, meaning each design is proprietary to the company that submits it.
On Tuesday, I will be at the Gulf Breeze Council meeting. Leadership requires communication and participation, and leaders can’t be scared of a little criticism in order to make their community better. Towards that end, I hope to find solutions to regionally help Gulf Breeze with its funding and to both literally and figuratively build bridges between our communities.