County Commissioner Nathan Boyles answered Niceville and Bluewater Bay Residents’ questions about the Mid Bay Bridge and the Crestview Bypass at a town hall hosted by Niceville City Manager Lannie Corbin on Thursday, May 5th.
Several residents asked Commissioner Boyles and City Manager Lannie Corbin about the situation with the Mid-Bay Bridge – and what could be done about the tolls and eventually having the state over the bridge.
Recently, according to Commissioner Boyles, the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority (more info below on who they are) spent more than $10 million on repairs, although the bridge is less than 30 years old.
Residents expressed frustration that they are still paying tolls despite the amount of time that has passed since the completion of construction.
“If it was my house, it would be paid off by now,” Boyles said ruefully to the citizens.
The Mid-Bay Bridge is owned by a public-private partnership called the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority. The Authority has five board members who are selected and appointed by the Governor of Florida. According to the Authority’s website, the entity “was established for the purpose of and having the power to plan, construct, operate, and maintain a bridge traversing Choctawhatchee Bay and other such transportation facilities that become part of its system. The Authority also has the power to fix, charge, and collect fees, tolls, rents and charges for the use of the system and facilities, and is further authorized to issue bonds and exercise eminent domain powers.”
According to the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority’s most recent financial statements, the actual bridge is worth $235.77 million. The Authority has about $267 million in outstanding bonds to pay off. Thanks to about $32 million dollars in restricted cash and $25 million in restricted investments – the bridge reported a net positive financial position.
Commissioner Boyles said the county has some limited oversight regarding the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority’s budget. He reminded the group that he’s the only commissioner to reject their proposed budget in the history of the bridge’s existence.
“[The people at the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority] tell us ‘without us, the bridge wouldn’t be built,’ to which I say ‘thank you very much, but what are you doing for us now?’” Commissioner Boyles said as he summarized his issues with the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority’s continued existence. “They have not given me a satisfactory answer,” he said.
The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority, which consists of a total of two employees and five appointed board members, does not do much of the hands-on work to operate the bridge. Instead, the state department of transportation performs all repairs and maintenance. The state tolling authority does the toll collections. “So you have a very large organization that sucks a lot of money off the side,” Boyles said, “and they will tell you point-blank, ‘we’re not in charge of that we can’t fix that we don’t make that decision.’”
Next, Boyles critiqued the Authority’s spending on advertising. He noted that billboards advertise a bridge that visitors can easily find on their phones, so spending money on advertising the bridge seems pointless.
A resident in attendance asked Commissioner Boyles what could be done to end tolls on the Mid-Bay Bridge. Firstly, he told the resident that other Okaloosa Commission members would have to support by vote asking the legislative delegation to take up the issue in session.
But, Boyles warned, part of the money raised by the tolls on the bridge allows the Authority to pay for a lobbyist in Tallahassee. “So they have a lobbying presence in Tallahassee annually to ensure that there is no bill that makes them go away. So some of your tolls go to pay their lobbyists to ensure that they continue to exist,” Commissioner Boyles added.
The State Legislature would have to pass a bill into law to pay off the debt of the bridge and bring it completely under the control of the state – or some other arrangement that would end the private portion of the public-private partnership which currently controls the bridge.
Finally, the governor would have to sign the bill into law.
If all of this happened, Commissioner Boyles believes the people of Okaloosa County would then be responsible for the debt that has been accumulated over time.
Commissioner Boyles said again, as he has in the past, he will not run for the district three commission seat in 2024. He also told attendees he wouldn’t endorse anyone to succeed him in the seat representing Valparaiso, western Niceville, and western Crestview on the commission. “That’s for the voters to decide. [endorsing someone] is typically how it’s done, but that is not my style. I’d love to see someone who’s energetic and engaged on issues similar to the ones that I’ve been engaged on anything,” said Boyles.
The largest public infrastructure project in Okaloosa County in Commissioner Boyles’ term has been the Crestview Bypass project. The project will cost more than $200 million total and will reduce traffic jams on state route 85.
“You know, my view has been that [the Crestview Bypass is] a county-wide priority because it’s a hurricane evacuation route,” said Commissioner Boyles. “There is one artery that connects North Okaloosa to South Okaloosa. And it’s really important to maintain flow. That project will run the next three to four years with construction and various phases and pieces; several major phases are already under construction, and we must keep the process moving on the additional components of a bypass around the city of Crestview. You eat an elephant one bite at a time.”
Bryan Gates is a retired colonel with the 505th Command and Control Wing. He is a passionate advocate for more ball fields and recreational areas in Niceville. It’s why he came to the event – to ask Commissioner Boyles what the county planned to do to draw sports tourism to the area using bed tax dollars. Gates says he wants to see athletic facilities built in the Niceville area.
Commissioner Boyles said the county continues to look for the right person to hire for a sports tourism position it has allocated money from the bed tax district expansion. Voters gave the county the ability to tack on fees for hotel room stays via a mail-in ballot vote last October. Voters approved the measure by two-to-one. 17% of eligible voters turned in their ballot.
Commissioner Boyles told the group he favored an “Olympics-style approach” to county investment in sports tourism. This would mean spreading out fields and parks – as well as money for those fields and parks around the county.
“You’re able to spread out the burdens of those events and the benefits of those events,” Commissioner Boyles said, “I think what you’re going to see the county doing is a deliberative study process over the next year or two, to identify what the carrying capacity and what the need is. To justify spending those bed tax dollars, we have to be able to justify that it is going to draw people to our community, but also find a way to benefit locals who would be able to make use of those facilities as well. That’s not something that you rush into overnight.”