Counties Team Up to Fight Gridlock on U.S. 98
Panama City Beach, Bay County and St. Joe work together to address local traffic concerns.
Photo by Debbie Ward/Courtesy of City of Panama City Beach
Development, including the expansion of Pier Park and the installation of new traffic lights, has made for bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go traffic on the Panama City Beach Parkway (Back Beach Road) in Bay County throughout much of the year.
When it comes to solving the traffic woes across the Panama City Beach area — one of the state’s most popular drive-to vacation spots — government officials and private business owners are learning the value of working together.
“It wasn’t an overnight thing,” Panama City Beach City Manager Mario Gisbert said. “It’s taken years to get everybody on board.”
Those efforts — which have included countless meetings, interlocal agreements, vying for state grants and levying half-cent sales taxes — appear to be paying off as Panama City Beach, with the assistance of Bay County and The St. Joe Company, moves closer to constructing the second leg of Bay Parkway.
“We’re all looking through the same type of vision,” Bay County Commissioner Philip “Griff” Griffitts said. “It’s definitely a win-win for the beach and the county.”
The $9 million project is expected to lay out roughly 3 miles of new roadway and be completed sometime in the next two years.
An east-west alternative, Bay Parkway is designed to help alleviate congestion near the intersection of State Road 79 and U.S. Highway 98, known locally as Back Beach Road.
“(Back Beach Road) is at capacity and then some,” Gisbert said. “The intersection of SR 79 and Back Beach Road is a failing intersection, and it has been for some time.”
The first section of Bay Parkway, a $3 million, 1.5-mile loop from State Road 79 to Pier Park North Drive, opened in early 2017.
But officials say it’s the second section that will be the gamechanger, finally offering motorists traveling into Panama City Beach on SR 79 a true bypass of a particularly crowded portion of Back Beach Road.
Under the city’s plans, the second leg of Bay Parkway will extend eastward to Nautilus Street, which connects to Back Beach Road with a traffic light.
“It’s a tremendous benefit to the city,” Panama City Beach City Councilman Hector Solis said.
“That whole Pier Park area gets really bogged down. All that traffic that comes down SR 79 can now bypass that 45-minute gridlock.”
Planning for growth
Illustrated Map by Charles bakofsky
Bay Parkway, which is being completed in phases, is a project designed to alleviate congestion on Panama City Beach Parkway in the area of Pier Park. The new road will extend from Highway 79 north of City Hall to U.S. 98 near the Colony Club golf course.
Panama City Beach Mayor Mike Thomas sees the continuation of Bay Parkway as not only a traffic solution but preparation for future residential and commercial growth.
“It’s a necessary thing,” he said. “For the last 20 years we have known it was needed. You can’t live in an area as beautiful as this and expect it not to grow. … You’re always going to have traffic, trash and noise. We’re just trying to minimize it.”
Griffitts agreed, noting that Panama City Beach’s roughly 17,000 rental units are a sign that the area will only grow in popularity.
“It’s a good problem to have, but … we’ve got to maintain that level of transportation ease,” he said.
The Florida Department of Transportation also recognized the need for a bypass of U.S. 98, but it had placed the project on a 30-year long-range plan.
“The city felt we couldn’t wait 30 years,” Gisbert said. “It’s vitally important. It helps us with hurricane evacuation, driving to the airport. … And most of our visitors are coming from the north down SR 79. This saves everybody time!”
To fund the project, Panama City Beach plans to contribute roughly $3.5 million, pulled from the city’s general fund and its half-cent sales tax revenue.
Bay County has committed to that same amount and has also applied for a $4 million FDOT Transportation Regional Incentive Program grant for fiscal year 2019.
St. Joe Company, which owns the property over which Bay Parkway will be built, has agreed to donate the land to the city in return for credits on development fees.
“As the area grows, it is important that we continue to work collaboratively with the local community to plan for infrastructure needs,” said Jorge Gonzalez, president and CEO of The St. Joe Company.
“The next leg of Bay Parkway is the latest example of such planning and once completed, we think it will help to alleviate traffic congestion for both residents and visitors by providing an alternative parallel road for a segment of U.S. 98.”
Solis, who also serves on the Bay Transportation Planning Organization, said tapping the city’s half-cent sales tax revenue to extend Bay Parkway bypass makes good fiscal sense.
“We’re putting (the money) where it’s needed,” he said. “I can find no better way to improve our roads. It’s the best use, in my opinion.”
In mid-May, Panama City Beach officials also approved a $700,000 contract with Gortemoller Engineering for design services related to the construction of the second segment.
“Even though it’s not an FDOT road, we are building it to FDOT standards,” Gisbert said.
He praised the different entities involved in the project for working together toward a common goal.
“All of our municipalities communicate really well, and we have a good line of communication with The St. Joe Company and with the FDOT,” he said. “That has been one of the good things.”
Gisbert said the FDOT has looked favorably on the Bay Parkway project because “it’s literally doing their work for them.”
Solis predicted the bypass will eventually become a state-maintained roadway.
“The long-term hope is that DOT would actually take over that road,” he said. “It’s just part of the natural growth cycle.”
Solis and Griffitts said the successful completion of the second leg of Bay Parkway could also give the area more leverage to push FDOT to accelerate the widening of Back Beach Road, a project that is on the books but still several years out.