Getting Northwest Florida Moving

Getting Northwest Florida MovingBusy Ports, A Giant New Airport and Plans for More Roads Are Helping Open Up the Panhandle to the Wider WorldBy Linda Kleindienst


It began with foot trails – narrow paths winding through the grassy savannahs, gradually worn over centuries of use as evolving native American cultures morphed from nomadic hunters to farmers seeking a permanent home.

Slowly, the climate changed. Glaciers melted and sea levels rose. Water highways came into their own as an efficient means of transportation, the testimony coming from the preserved hulls of dugout canoes that have been found on shorelines or buried under the silt of Florida’s lakes and river system.

For more than 10,000 years, from the arrival of the Paleo-Indians to the occupation by the Spanish and English, travel through Northwest Florida remained a daunting challenge. Trips were short and dangerous. There were limited ways to get from one place to another.

But the 1513 arrival of Juan Ponce de Leon on Florida’s shores heralded the changes that would eventually come. While he never found the Fountain of Youth and his visit was relatively short, his arrival sparked Spanish interest that brought more fleets and eventually led to settlements and roads that still affect the Sunshine State today.

Over the past three centuries, with the development of modern transportation technologies such as steamboats, trains, planes and automobiles, Floridians have become a far more mobile society, anxious to get where they’re going, frustrated by delays and inconvenience.

Northwest Florida has come a long way since the construction of its first “highway” – the carriage road that connected a series of Spanish missions dotting the landscape between St. Augustine and Pensacola. An interstate highway, railroads, ports that unload goods from around the world, airports that cater to domestic and international passengers and cargo – all now form Northwest Florida’s transportation system.

But the region is growing.

Economic development efforts are attracting new businesses looking to ship their products around the world. And new housing developments are bringing more residents, building pressure on roads that some say are already overloaded.

Can the system handle the pressure? And what changes might still be in store?

From Missionaries to Tourists

They called it the “Camino Real” and the “Spanish Mission Trail.”

It was Florida’s first superhighway, built to facilitate movement of goods and to connect a chain of missions that the Spanish began building in 1565. Eventually it stretched from Pensacola, the capital of Spanish West Florida, to St. Augustine, the capital of Spanish East Florida. Mission San Luis, in today’s Tallahassee, was the midpoint.

Three hundred years later, the route would help form Florida’s first federal highway, called the Bellamy Road or the Pensacola-St. Augustine Road, a $20,000 project funded by Congress in 1823.

Although begun in 1824 by a military detachment sent out from Pensacola, most of the road was built under the direction of John Bellamy, a wealthy Jefferson County planter who used slave labor for the job.

In the early 1900s, “The Old Spanish Trail” was revived, part of an effort by states throughout the South to reinvigorate interest in and attract tourists to travel the Spanish-built road that had crossed the country, from St. Augustine to San Diego. Portions of the old meandering mission trail were paved over, later becoming part of U.S. Highway 90. Eventually, by the time construction was finished in 1978, Interstate 10 – dubbed the “freeway of the Deep South” – just cut straight across the state to provide the shortest distance between Pensacola and the Atlantic Ocean, opening the way for more traffic, from tourists and trucks.

In a way, that was the beginning of the boom.

“Thirty years ago, this was a peaceful, quiet, undiscovered part of Florida. When tourists thought of Florida, they thought of South Florida,” says Larry Kelley, who oversees all road projects in a 16-county area, from Jefferson County to Escambia, for the Florida Department of Transportation. “Now there is a huge effort to attract tourists, and the result is that people want to live here.”

Kelley, who has spent 35 years working in Florida’s Panhandle, acknowledges that the extra traffic has put a strain on roads such as the U.S. Highway 98 corridor, which has “some serious congestion points,” and Interstate 10, which is finally being six-laned through Tallahassee and is undergoing major interchange improvements.

U.S. 98 has been hardened against storm washout between Eastpoint and Carrabelle and between Destin and Fort Walton Beach, in hopes that when the next hurricane hits, the storm surge won’t tear the road apart again. Despite those improvements, however, the road will continue to be crowded, especially during the height of the tourist season each summer.

“The Panhandle has not done a good job of developing east-west corridors along the Gulf,” says Craig Barker, who has been mayor of Destin for seven years. “Some of it is due to lack of foresight, taking a while to react to changes in the development patterns.”

Ironically, it’s not the people of Destin creating that logjam. A recent study by the city showed that 67 percent of the cars driving along U.S. 98 in Destin had no point of origin in the city, meaning they came from somewhere else.

“That,” says Barker, “is a true indication of our problems.”

‘Highway Chaos’ for Evacuees?

When Hurricane Opal slammed into the Panhandle in 1995, it was a major wake-up call for the state to get serious about improving evacuation routes that would take residents north, out of harm’s way. One federal report that analyzed the evacuation described the road situation as “highway chaos,” stating “there was a real possibility that thousands of evacuees were going to be caught by violent winds on open highways.”

“Opal was an attention-getter for this area, like Hurricane Andrew was in South Florida,” Kelley says. “It put the emphasis on the need for easier, better and faster evacuation routes.”

U.S. Highway 29, which heads north out of Pensacola, is now four-laned. Others are still in the process of being widened, with the state starting at the southern end and slowly moving north.

But Jay Odom, a Destin real estate developer who is vice chairman of the Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor Authority, says the work isn’t going fast enough, especially on roads such as U.S. Highway 331, which is the evacuation route out of Walton County.

“It desperately needs to be upgraded for commerce and safety,” he says. “The evacuation time is the longest in the state behind the Keys . . . 331 is the only way out.”

But how much the state can spend to make those improvements depends on the economy and gas tax revenues – the primary funding source for transportation.

“The public has really cut back on gasoline use, so our numbers have really gone down the last couple of years,” Kelley says. “We’re hoping to hang on to what we’ve got and not see any reductions.”

The Toll Road Solution

Every dollar invested in transportation returns about $5.50 in economic benefit to the state. Every $1 billion spent by the state supports 28,000 jobs – one-third of them in construction.

But the question remains: How much can the state invest during tough economic times?

To relieve that financial pressure, the Transportation Corridor Authority, established by the Legislature in 2005, came up with a plan to build a new east-west thoroughfare that would move people and goods – for a price. The land would be donated by Eglin Air Force Base. Users would pay the construction bill through tolls.

The proposed Eglin bypass would stretch 54 miles, skirting the southern edge of the base, from U.S. 331 in Walton County to State Road 87 in Santa Rosa County.

“It could be constructed rapidly and we wouldn’t have to wait on money from the state,” Odom says. “It’s a true user fee and, in this economic environment, the project would produce more than 40,000 jobs.”

It would also relieve much of the pressure on U.S. 98, which is expected to be stressed even more by a military build-up accompanying the arrival of the new F-35 Lightning II, a supersonic fighter scheduled to arrive at Eglin in 2010.

“There’s enough problems with transportation in all regions, but in the Panhandle we’re so limited with east-west transportation corridors,” Odom says.

There is only one thing blocking the road – the reticulated flatwoods salamander, currently listed as a threatened species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering putting the salamander on the endangered list – a decision expected to come soon. And some of its habitat lies right where the toll road is being planned.

Gail Carmody, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s director of ecological services in the Panama City office, says she has been working with the Air Force to determine how the road can be built without adversely affecting the reptile, which grows to a maximum of six inches. The road can’t be moved north, because it would interfere with Eglin’s military mission. It can’t be moved south, because it would go through private homes.

“If we can figure out how to weave that road through there and minimize the effects on the salamander and the private land owners to the south, you’ll have something that works,” Carmody says. “We’re trying to figure out if there is a solution that meets everyone’s objectives.”

Another toll road is being promoted by a group in Alabama that hopes to start out by connecting Dothan to Interstate 10 in North Florida. Eventually the plan is to link a 175-mile stretch from Montgomery to Panama City, roughly following U.S. Highway 231.

Although the route has already been determined by the Alabama Department of Transportation, planning hasn’t gone nearly that far in Florida. County commissioners in Washington County this past summer rejected the idea, and a feasibility study hasn’t been done to see if the road would pay for itself.

Luther Strange, a Birmingham, Ala., lawyer representing Focus 2000, which is pushing for the road, says the project is designed to promote economic development, but “right now, we’re just trying to get around to civic groups in Washington and Jackson counties to answer their questions about it.”

Panama Canal Connection

The construction of the Panama Canal brought hope of better trade opportunities to Florida’s Gulf Coast ports, even prompting one town to change its name from Harrison to Panama City in 1909 – five years before the canal officially opened.

The boom was never realized, but a century later some Northwest Florida leaders hope that the ports of Pensacola and Panama City can capitalize on a $5 billion Panama Canal expansion that will double the canal’s capacity and finally allow supersize cargo ships to use the shortcut between oceans. The target completion date is 2014.

“We have got to rediscover our geographic advantage,” says Jerry Ray, senior vice president of strategic alliances and communications for the St. Joe Company.

Draw a straight line and, geographically, Panama City’s port is the closest to the canal, only 1,530 miles away.

“The conventional wisdom is that it will open the floodgate,” says Wayne Stubbs, executive director of the 110-acre Port of Panama City. “We don’t expect large ships to come in, but we could become an option for the smaller ships.”

Although more limited geographically, the 50-acre Port of Pensacola – only 1.5 miles from the end of Interstate 110 – also hopes to reap some benefits from the Panama Canal improvements.

“What we’re looking for is the possibility of getting some of the smaller ships,” says Clyde Mathis, Pensacola’s port director.

In the meantime, Pensacola has become a major port for the export of poultry to Cuba and Eastern Europe and the import of wind turbine generator units from Europe.

Business at the Panama City port has tripled in the past seven years, in part thanks to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated port facilities in Mississippi and Louisiana.

With its rail and road connections into the heart of the mainland, the Port of Panama City attracted copper importers ready to move out of New Orleans after Katrina. It now handles 50 percent of the copper coming into this country, mostly from Chile and Peru. And Linea Peninsular, which operates five container ships sailing between Mexico and the United States, moved its operation to Panama City after the hurricane devastated Port Bienville in Mississippi.

“I had left my card with them a few weeks before Katrina struck, and they called me just as the storm was about to make landfall,” Stubbs remembers.

Stubbs’ card was the last thing the owner said he grabbed from his office as the wind smashed the windows.

“They asked if we had a crane and, if they had a lot of damage, could we help out. The rest is history,” Stubbs says.

The Friendly Skies

Panama City and Bay County officials began planning to move their airport to a better location about 25 years ago. In negotiations with state and federal transportation, military and aviation officials, they put dibs on a 12-mile “hole in the sky,” an air corridor south of Interstate 10, between Tyndall and Eglin Air Force Bases, centered on West Bay.

“We knew there was this available air space there and it would provide more of a regional location,” says Carol Roberts, president and CEO of the Bay County Chamber of Commerce. “Little did we know St. Joe would come along and give us the land.”

Now that airport dream has become a reality. Work on the 10,000-foot runway – which could eventually grow to 12,000 feet – is well under way. The airport site itself is larger than the city of Washington, D.C. And opening day is scheduled for May 2010.

“We’ve been going out there, checking on the progress, driving in on dirt roads,” Roberts says. “When they opened up the paved main road, the first time I pulled on to that, I literally got teary-eyed. This is what we’ve been working for.”

It is this new $330 million Panama City-Bay County International Airport that many believe holds the key to Northwest Florida’s future because of its ability to handle large cargo planes, enabling it to become an import and export hub, and jumbo passenger jets, which will bring tourists to fill the resorts and, just maybe, buy second homes.

“This area isn’t well known in the United Kingdom,” says Keith Allan, British general counsel in Miami, who visited Sandestin for the first time last fall to attend a “Stimulating the Economy with Transportation” conference sponsored by the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce. “They know Orlando, Tampa and Miami because there are direct flights. Right now, it’s kind of difficult to get here from Europe. But you get visitors coming and they’ll think, ‘This is nice, I’d like to come back and have a winter home here.’”

As St. Joe’s Ray puts it, “We need to make ourselves accessible to the rest of the world.”

The airport is ideally located for easy access to resort areas along the beach. And, for cargo coming in or going out, it’s a short hop from the Port of Panama City, Interstate 10, Bay Line Railroad and CSX. There will be 37 million square feet of cargo warehouse space available with direct runway access.

The region has three other airports that provide air service options. Pensacola Regional Airport, NW Florida Regional Airport in Okaloosa County and Tallahassee Regional Airport all are served by six airlines. All have improvement projects under way, but no plans to lengthen their runways or become international hubs.

“Our service is down now, but we definitely plan to expand in the future,” says Michael Clow, capital programs administrator in Tallahassee. “People have to travel, and air service is the way people get around.”

The airport recently completed a new cargo complex that includes a new building underwritten by FedEx. It also is in the midst of a five-year, $25 million project to improve the passenger terminal.

NW Florida Regional, which shares its space with the Air Force, is planning a $32 million gate expansion program and hoping to soon offer direct flights to Washington, D.C. And Pensacola has a $74 million renovation project under way to make its facility more user-friendly.

Rails Remain Active

Because of damage done to rail lines during Hurricane Katrina, Amtrak had to stop the Sunset Limited passenger service between New Orleans and Sanford, Fla., in 2005. The trains, which made stops in Crestview, Chipley and Tallahassee, haven’t started back up again. But the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act of 2008 approved by Congress this past October requires Amtrak to develop a projected timeline for restoring passenger service along the route along with an estimate of the cost.

For now, however, Northwest Florida’s rail lines carry only freight.

With the only direct freight line that crosses the Florida Panhandle, CSX expects its cargo business to improve as the region grows. Also expected to benefit are the three short lines that serve the Panhandle: Apalachicola Northern Railroad, which runs from Port St. Joe to Chattahoochee; Bay Line, which runs from Panama City to Dothan; and the Alabama & Gulf Coast Railway, which runs from Pensacola to Kimbrough, Ala.

What Next?

Northwest Florida business leaders agree that a good transportation network is an essential key in any economic development program.

In acknowledging that, state Rep. Ray Sansom, a Destin Republican who in Mid-November became the first state House speaker from Okaloosa County, has vowed to be “laser-focused” during his two-year reign on igniting a fire under the state’s – and the region’s – economy.

“We know this, that roads and bridges and seaports and airports and a good work force with a regional mindset is what works,” Sansom said at the October meeting in Sandestin. “That’s what we know. It’s very simple.”