By Ed Offley
Another major highway construction project is on the horizon for Panama City Beach and Bay County residents. State highway officials have announced a formal study for the possible widening of U.S. 98 from the Bay-Walton County line to SR 79 in Panama City Beach.After evaluating a number of alternatives, the Florida Department of Transportation has revealed a “preferred alternative” that would largely mirror ongoing construction phases for U.S. 98 from Mandy Lane at Pier Park to the Hathaway Bridge: widening the east- and westbound roadways from two to three traffic lanes, constructing an elevated grass median, sidewalk and additional shared-use path, as well as intersection improvements.
This project also calls for the replacement of the existing Phillips Inlet Bridge over Lake Powell to accommodate the wider roadway.
If funded by the Florida Legislature, the project would comprise the final roadway improvements to U.S. 98, which has struggled with severe traffic congestion for years. Currently designed for a capacity of 45,000 vehicles each day, the four-lane U.S. 98 corridor on the “island” has often experienced peak traffic exceeding 80,000 vehicles per day.
FDOT is already proceeding with three other widening phases for U.S. 98. Construction of the initial 2.34-mile segment, running from Mandy Lane to Nautilus Street, is scheduled to begin in May. A second segment will run 2.3 miles from Nautilus Street to Richard Jackson Boulevard. It is currently budgeted at $31 million. The final phase – a 3.9-mile stretch of the highway from Richard Jackson Boulevard to the foot of the Hathaway Bridge, estimated at $61 million, remains in the highway department’s long-term plan. That segment’s completion date, while tentative, will be at least five years away.
City and county officials have pressed for widening U.S. 98 for the past five years.
While the widening project will provide much-needed relief for Beach motorists, FDOT Spokesman Ian Satter cautioned that construction of the west end segment is still a long way off. The formal Project Design & Environment (PD&E) Study will take 2-3 years to complete, and after that, construction won’t begin until it is formally funded in Tallahassee, he said. “Right now, we are in the initial stage,” Satter told PCB Life. “There is no timeline at this point for design and construction.”
A public hearing on the project is scheduled for Tuesday, May 9, at the 5 Bridges Church at 17495 Panama City Beach Parkway, with an open house at 5:30 p.m. and the hearing itself beginning at 6 p.m. Maps, drawings and other project information are also available for review through Friday, May 19 at PCB City Hall, 17007 Panama City Beach Parkway, or online at www.nwflroads.com/virtualmeetings.
The U.S. 98 corridor is not the only major highway or street project underway on the PCB “Island” this year.
City Council has accelerated planning and construction for modernizing Front Beach Road and key north-south connectors including Alf Coleman Road and Powell Adams Road, while finishing the ongoing reconstruction of SR 79 from U.S. 98 to Front Beach Road. Moreover, plans are underway to resurface the entire three-mile length of Middle Beach Road (Hutchinson Road) this year.