It’s summertime, but the living isn’t always easy for motorists on the Emerald Coast. According to the Okaloosa County Economic Development Council, our area is one of the most popular driving destinations for visitors in Florida (second only to Orlando.) As traffic woes continue to be a top issue for residents, the Daily News asked Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley to weigh in on the problem.
One suggested solution to the area’s traffic woes has been to have sheriff’s deputies directing traffic at major intersections where beach traffic backs up. Do you see this as a viable solution?
No Ma’am. The concern from local residents is certainly valid, but the solution is definitely not in additional, manual traffic control. What is required is traffic relief. Extraordinary numbers of visitors are coming to visit our area, but nearly everything they want to see and the places they are here to visit lie on or near U.S. Highway 98. The hordes of visitors create a service industry demand, so the traffic is compounded by local residents commuting into these areas to go to work. As all of these vehicles crowd onto U.S. 98, the roadway capacity is soon exceeded and the frustrating waits begin. As people search for shortcuts and non-existent ways around what they believe to be spot blockages, feeder roads become clogged and inevitably, impatience and carelessness lead to crashes. Replacing traffic lights with a law enforcement officer is simply not a safe, reasonable or effective solution. Manual traffic control can be effective in order to circumnavigate a spot blockage, but what we are dealing with during these peak traffic times is systemic gridlock.
How much of an increase in traffic does Okaloosa County experience during the summer tourist season?
This is a difficult answer to quantify without implementing large scale, seasonal traffic studies. Anyone who lives in the area would be willing to testify to a remarkable increase in traffic during these times, but finding hard numbers is challenging. An article by Annie Blanks in the Daily News on Feb. 25 forecasted 25,000 to 60,000 visitors a week for the 100-day season this year. If those numbers are anywhere close to reality, imagine how many vehicles are associated with them, and then add in the local commuters headed to the area to serve them, coupled with the locals who would like to enjoy the beaches themselves.
Where do you see the worst congestion and highest number of accidents during the summer?
The most significant and persistent congestion and the most frequent crashes seem to occur along the U.S. 98 stretch in Destin. There are points or “clusters” where crashes seem to be most common within that stretch. The “clusters” from May to late August 2016 were at the intersections of U.S. 98 and Main Street, Palmetto Street, Airport Road, Matthew Boulevard and Danny Wuerffel Way.
Do you see any potential solutions for the problem?
Solutions to this problem do not come fast, easy or without significant expense. There are a few potential solutions that would have some impact on the situation, but no “silver bullet.” U.S. 98 could be widened, raised and/or paralleled by service roads to allow through traffic to move more quickly. Additional north/south roadways could be added. Pedestrian overpasses could be added in congested areas to minimize the impact of foot traffic on a major thoroughfare. All of these solutions would take space, resources, time and funding, and in the end, we would likely still find ourselves discussing the traffic problem when the season rolls around. The bottom line is, we live in a place that people want to come experience. We have promoted the area nationally and internationally, and have done a great job of getting people to come in ever-increasing numbers. We, however, have not done such a great job of planning to accommodate the burden on our infrastructure and funding the support that such an influx demands.