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    Bill brings back $55-million toll bridge plan

    Fort Walton Beach voters in 1993 overwhelmingly rejected the toll bridge proposal.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001


    Eight years after voters in Fort Walton Beach rejected building a $55-million toll bridge, the Legislature has voted to revive the project, anyway.

    The bill resuscitating the bridge, sponsored by state Rep. Jerry Melvin, R-Fort Walton Beach, passed the House with no opposition last week and flew through the Senate by a 40-0 vote Wednesday. Gov. Jeb Bush's staff will review it before he decides whether to sign it, a spokeswoman said Thursday.

    The bill passed even though backers of the original project still owe the state more than $1-million they borrowed to pay for engineering studies. Plans for the new bridge call for getting started by borrowing another $250,000 of the state's money to pay for even more studies.

    "So I guess we're supposed to . . . build a new $50-million bridge rather than pay off our old debts," Thornber Smith said jokingly. Smith, a Fort Walton Beach native, helped lead opposition to the original version of what he called "the boondoggle bridge."

    The bridge was first proposed in 1990 as a toll facility that would parallel an existing span between downtown and the beach that charges no toll. Backers proposed making the two bridges one-way thoroughfares, so that going to the beach would cost money but returning downtown would be free.

    Lawmakers created a Fort Walton Beach Area Bridge Authority to oversee planning and construction, with its seven members appointed by the Okaloosa County Commission and the governor. During two years the authority borrowed more than $1-million from the DOT and promised to pay it back from the tolls.

    But when the plans were unveiled, "people were aghast at what it was going to do to Fort Walton Beach," recalled Bob Reid, a resident of nearby Niceville who helped defeat the project. "There wasn't going to be a town center left."

    To cross the Intercoastal Waterway, the bridge had to be so big that it would have wiped out businesses and homes, said Fort Walton Beach Mayor Glenda Glover, a former authority member.

    In a 1993 referendum, 84 percent rejected the proposal. The bridge authority lost all official support and withered away.

    The authority was supposed to start paying off the loan in 1998. So far it has repaid only $1,000. State officials have suggested formally dissolving the old authority and dunning the county, but county officials say they are not responsible for the debt.

    Instead, Melvin's bill renames the bridge agency as the Emerald Coast Bridge Authority and hands to the governor the sole authority for appointing its five members.

    Reid said the existing free bridge has yet to reach its full capacity, but Melvin aide Don Pardue said the spot where it funnels traffic into downtown "is one of the most congested spots in Okaloosa County . . . so some sort of solution is still required."

    The old authority's debt is the largest outstanding amount now owed to the DOT's loan fund for toll projects, according to Lowell Clary of the DOT.

    This new bridge may meet the same fate as its predecessor, according to the mayor. Glover said she thinks the bridge is a good idea; but because of the opposition it generated last time, "I don't think in my lifetime I'm going to see one here."

    Lawmakers have pushed several controversial bridges recently, over the objections of environmentalists and growth management advocates. Former House Speaker Bolley "Bo" Johnson pushed a bridge in Pensacola in 1999. In St. Lucie County, Sen. Ken Pruitt has funneled more than $25-million for a bridge that's part of a project to connect Interstate 95 to area beaches.

    - Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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