Officials: Weekend traffic jams only the beginning

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By Heather Osbourne | 315-4440 | @heatheronwfdn | hosbourne@nwfdailynews.com

Drivers looking forward to cruising down U.S. Highway 98 this summer may have to settle for a slow crawl.

Local officials say Easter weekend was only the beginning of the bumper-to-bumper traffic coming to the Emerald Coast this tourist season.

Doug Rainer, spokesman for the City of Destin, said Monday that the weekend’s traffic woes were likely made worse by construction, crashes and unusually large Easter crowds.

“This was one of the heaviest spring break times we’ve had so far (this year),” Rainer said. “So, the volume of traffic we had was extremely high.”

Rainer said Memorial Day is also a busy holiday weekend before a consistent rush of crowds move in for the summer.

Jennifer Adams, the director of the Tourism Development Department, said her team was out Monday trying to estimate the number of tourists visiting the area.

“We know the beaches are packed and the Gulfarium is packed, but we just don’t have numbers,” Adams said.

The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office reported approximately 20 crashes along U.S. Highway 98 over the weekend. Michele Nicholson, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office, said the amount of crashes weren’t unusually high.

“It’s Easter weekend and we’re the second most popular drive-to destination in Florida after Disney World, so there is going to be a lot of traffic,” Nicholson said.

The Florida Department of Transportation’s U.S. Highway 98 widening project — including its array of barricades and traffic cones near Henderson Beach Drive — probably didn’t help traffic flow, according to Rainer.

FDOT spokesman Ian Satter said although the construction might slow traffic, the project will eventually benefit drivers by increasing parts of the highway from four to six lanes.

Rainer added the FDOT will also begin a project at the end of this year for easier pedestrian access between Marler Bridge and Airport Road.

“That could get people out of their cars and moving around in other ways,” Rainer said. “They will have better lighting, upgraded signage and a 4-foot bike path.”

Rainer said other than encouraging drivers to park their cars and walk, there are no solutions to solve the highway’s congestion — particularly on Saturdays, when most visitors are either checking in or checking out of their accommodations.

Satter said FDOT is researching other areas of U.S. Highway 98 that would also benefit from widening.

“Northwest Florida isn’t a secret anymore,” Satter said. “People are coming in droves because they want to visit the area. We are happy for the growth, but we are also figuring out what we can do with our roadways to alleviate traffic.”

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