TALLAHASSEE — Transportation officials have started working on a proposal that could lead to a new toll road linking Interstate 10 and U.S. 98 in Northwest Florida, as the state’s Turnpike Enterprise increases its presence in the region.
The Turnpike Enterprise, a division of the Florida Department of Transportation, introduced a rough outline last week for a multibillion-dollar, four-lane toll expressway from Interstate 10 to U.S. 98 along Florida Power & Light property and easements in Bay, Calhoun and Jackson counties and maybe Gulf County.
Ivette Ruiz-Paz, a department spokeswoman, said in an email Monday that “a draft study report is being finalized.”
Any proposal would have to go through numerous studies and reviews, and the local community would have to show a transportation need and support through private-sector partnerships, Carol Scott, Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise planning manager, told members of the Bay County Transportation Planning Organization last week.
“Toll facilities are funded by toll revenues and bonds against those revenues,” Scott said. “So, the facility needs to prove that it can pay for itself.”
Recent proposals to build toll roads in other parts of the state have run into community opposition.
A department report in December on a proposed northern extension of the Florida Turnpike from Wildwood to Citrus County or Levy County said plans should wait until improvements are completed on Interstate 75, along with some other transportation work in the region. The report also pointed to a need to “prioritize engagement to avoid communities and other resources that have substantial cultural, historic or other significance.”
The turnpike extension was among three toll-road projects that the Legislature approved in 2019. The plans were mostly scrapped two years later. They did not include projects in Northwest Florida.
The Bay County Transportation Planning Organization requested a study about building a toll road from I-10 to U.S. 98 about a year ago.
During the meeting last week, panel members said being able to drive 75 mph from coastal areas to I-10 for $10 would bring a lot more SunPass users to the region. But they also acknowledged a need to set up meetings with local officials in communities to the north, including at the Apalachee Regional Planning Council.
Projected at a cost of $2.76 billion to $3.11 billion if opened in 2035, the approximately 50-mile corridor is pitched as providing an emergency-response route, improving commuter and tourist travel and providing support to Tyndall Air Force Base and the terminals at Port Panama City.
“A turnpike to I-10 would also provide us another emergency egress point in case of a hurricane,” Panama City Beach Councilman Michael Jarman told the Panama City News Herald. “With the growth of the area, having more ways in and out, especially those that can be faster, are only going to benefit us as a county.”
Three routes are being eyed, including one that would jog east into Gulf County. Each route would connect to I-10 more than 20 miles east of the U.S. 231 interchange in Jackson County.
The state estimates construction at $58 million a mile, based on recent turnpike expansion costs. Motorists would face a 20-cent-per-mile charge. Transportation officials project tolls would offset bonded construction costs if the route does not go into Gulf County.
The proposal was rolled out as Scott noted the Department of Transportation remains in the process of formally acquiring the Garcon Point Bridge in Santa Rosa County.
The Legislature this year passed a wide-ranging transportation law (HB 1305) that included repealing the Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority and giving the Department of Transportation the power to transfer the bridge to the turnpike system.
The Santa Rosa County bridge was the subject of a long-running legal fight between bondholders and the state because the bridge did not generate enough toll revenue.
The Department of Transportation last year agreed to pay $134 million to take control of the bridge and to end the litigation.