The Future of US 331

Walton County has the slowest hurricane evacuation time of any county in the entire state of Florida. County officials say that time would improve significantly if the state would widen Highway 331, which runs from south Walton all the way to the state line.

The Department of Transportation laid out its future plans for US 331 at a meeting in Freeport.

Tommie Speights of the Florida DOT says the plan is to four-lane a 4.7 mile stretch of U.S. Highway 331, between the Clyde B. Wells Bridge over Choctawhatchee Bay and State Road 20.

"So we're going from two to four lanes and this will improve safety as well the capacity of the roadway."

As Walton County grows, so does traffic congestion. Approximately 13,000 vehicles every day travel on Highway 331.

Albert Paris, a Walton County resident, says crashes along this roadway claim many lives every year.

"We have such heavy traffic in the morning, and the evening it's almost impossible to get out on the road."

But the real benefit for Walton County residents will be faster evacuation when a hurricane threatens. State emergency planners say it takes 24 hours to get everyone out of Walton County. By comparison, it only takes 14 hours to evacuate Bay County.

331 is Walton County's only north/south evacuation route and citizens recognize the necessity of the expansion. But Tommie Speights of the DOT reminded everyone it all takes money.

“The estimated cost for construction would be like $42 million. However, there are no funds set aside at this time for construction."

DOT officials are hoping to push funding through the legislature in time for project construction to begin by 2013. They hope to have the design phase of the project completed sometime next year.

The next phase would be to acquire the right of way from the local property owners, money permitting.