Walton County looks to the future for transportation

WALTON COUNTY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - As money from the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill begins to be divvied out, Walton County is looking at innovative ways to spend it.

The council that deals with the RESTORE Act money and county officials are working together to build the area's infrastructure.

"So we're looking at innovative technologies that are still in policy and technology. But we want to be the leaders. We've gone to Washington D.C., we've asked to be a rule pilot program, as we work with the University of Florida and the University of West Florida. The legislature has recognized that. They gave us a half million last year to work with the feasibility to look at those congested and traffic problems and what all alternative energies and technologies we could use," Walton County Restore Coordinator Bill Williams said. "So we've been working this process looking at all the different funding streams that could bring those resources the most efficiently and effectively to Walton County and we see a transit system designed where it starts with electric vehicles and moves to autonomous."

"There are a lot of components to this that hopefully a lot of people know, some people don't. There are five pots of money just on the BP side. There is pot number one that comes directly to the Florida counties. Florida is the only state that it comes to the counties and not to the state first," Walton County Commissioner Sara Comander said.

One of the main ways they plan to do this is by bringing new technologies to the area that could help grow the county's footprint.

"We're still a long way out but the scenarios we want to be the policy lab. We want folks, not just in the eight countries but throughout the region and country that Walton County is leading IT, but the long-term goal is to move people off of that beach more effectively with that vehicle," Williams explained.

But first, they must make sure they don't put the cart before the horse.

"Providing infrastructure along 331. That is one of our keys to success. Until we get water and sewer down the entire length on 331 all the way to the Choctawhatchee Bridge," said Comander.

"It's basically another resource for us to leverage and move our projects. We've been busy for the past year looking at projects for 331 infrastructure and we want to bring waste water and potable water up through 331. We're going to take 650 septic tanks off of the Choctawhatchee Bay with this project," Williams explained. "So as we look at all the opportunities with the BP oil spill money, with Triumph. We're going to tie in economic environmental linkages that can really open up that corridor on 331."

Williams said the project would develop into three parts.

"We want a research and innovation center. We are targeting the development between Defuniak and Freeport that's called Owls Head," he said. "It's about 1,600 acres and it has three major components and that is one of our big funding area that we wanna go to. We want autonomous vehicles where you will actually see a test track university system, where folks are looking at policies and working on doctoral programs to masters programs so it has an education. But real career sources."

The second component would work with the University of Florida building farm-to-table practices.

"We want to tie in our north end farmers to our south end restaurants and hotels so we have a defined supply like, but we're also teaching kids how to do a lot of things in agriculture communities," explained Williams.

He goes on to say, "the third part of it is environmental. We want to look at our estuaries, our rivers and what can we do with settlement levels and phosphate and nitrates, so that university component will have real-time education going for a K through 20 programs, to college programs to jobs centrally located on 331."

"The project they are talking about in Owls Head can't move forward without until we get water and sewer, so to me that's water and sewer is the key. We've got to unlock that one and then everything else will be possible," Comander pointed out.

Comander also said the state has set very specific limits on how each pot of money can be spent and must be spent just on educational things.

"People want good jobs, people want opportunities, families want their children to be able to stay there. We don't want to just be a tourist, we are very thankful and very excited and want to always partner with tourism," said Williams, "but we also want to diversify. The resilience the oil spill taught us is how do we keep our kids there. How do we educate them."

"We see our as basically the silicone coast. We want to look at high IT paying jobs, we want to capitalize on 331," Williams said.

Williams said once the infrastructure is in place, they hope to expand into the academic realm and bring long-term jobs and education to Walton County.

"We have to account for every penny. Every penny," expressed Comander. "Because when it goes back to the treasury to be reviewed, let's say once a project is done. If they don't think we did it correctly they are gonna look to the county and say we want our money back. So that's one of the things that's taking so long. We've got to make sure we do it right, do it according to Treasury regulations and move forward."

At Tuesday's Walton County Commission meeting, the board set a workshop date to further discuss infrastructure planning, as well as review updates from the U.S. Treasury and Triumph boards.