Slowly but surely, Panama City Beach continues to plug away at a pedestrian-friendly overhaul of Front Beach Road that will allow many to use public transit and safely walk and bike along the congested corridor instead of driving.
The council agreed Thursday to apply for a $1.5 million state Department of Transportation grant for the final engineering design work on Phase 4 of the project, which is slated to stretch from Lullwater Drive to Hill Road. The city intends of match those funds.
The council also approved spending $1.6 million for 1.4 acres of the Barnacle Bay property by Richard Jackson Boulevard for a stormwater pond for Phase 2 of the Front Beach Road project. That section is to extend from South Thomas Drive to Richard Jackson Boulevard.
Work on that segment is expected to begin as early as the end of the year and take two years to complete, said John Alaghemand, manager of the Panama City Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), which is developing the project. The project will add mass transit lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks, move utility poles underground and improve the overall infrastructure of the road.
"We're hoping to include it in next fiscal year's budget for construction in our fiscal year, which begins Oct.1," he said.
He said the funds are not yet available to cover the entire cost of that phase. He said the city may have to borrow money internally and pay it off as CRA funds become available. City officials have discussed borrowing from the city's BP settlement fund to jump-start this phase.
Declines in property values have meant the tax-increment-driven CRA has had less project funding to work with in recent years. The CRA budgeted $3.4 million for the project this year, which will redevelop 1 mile of Front Beach Road.
Philip Colvin, vice president of marketing for the Holiday Inn Resort that falls in Phase 2 of the project, said it will beautify the corridor.
"Anything that cleans up and beautifies the city is good for tourism," he said.
He said he was not sure how many guests would take advantage of the regular mass transit that will be offered once the overhaul is complete.
"At our hotel the majority of guests stay here on the property," he said. "We have enough for them to do, so they don't have to go anywhere. But I think (the project) improves the curb appeal of the city, which is how I look at this project."
Phase 1 of the project, which includes improvements on South Thomas Drive and Front Beach Road from South Thomas to Hutchison Boulevard, was completed about a year ago. That's only a half-mile of the 8-mile total project. It costs about $10 million a mile to do the work, and after paying off bonds the CRA only has about $3 million to allocate toward new work each year.
Alaghemand said it takes about three to four years to finish a mile of the project based on the current rate of funding, but when it's done, many people won't have to drive along the crowded corridor when they come down to visit, he said.
"When it's done, the people are going to have a safe way to walk, to bike, and at the same time we're going to have a means for people who don't like to drive to have a chance to take transit," he said.
He said the goal is for a trolley to come by each stop along the corridor every 15 minutes, reducing traffic on the heavily traveled road.
"That is the bottom line," he said. "The road is so congested. Our blighted area is really the transportation blight. We don't have property blight."
The city has purchased property on North Thomas Drive across from Ripley's Believe It Or Not that now is used for public parking that could become a multimodal center for public transportation once the project is completed, he said.
Copyright 2014 - The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.