PANAMA CITY, FL -Two things usually are true with a planned highway: It will be expensive, and it will take a while to build.
Such is the case with Gulf Coast Parkway, a proposed state road that would connect U.S. 231 north of Panama City to U.S. 98 east of Mexico Beach, providing a bypass of the Tyndall Air Force Base.
The price, indeed, is costly: Estimates for a two-lane version hover around $200 million, while a four-lane road could cost $550 million.
And while project talks began about five years ago, it could be another five or more before ground is broken.
The glacially moving creation process continues this week with a meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Springfield Community Center and another Oct. 20 in Port St. Joe.
A dozen different routes, or corridors, have been trimmed to five, and the state Department of Transportation will hold information sessions and solicit public opinion on the preferred path the road will take.
A search of property records in southeastern Bay County and western Gulf County finds two names owning a majority of the land: The St. Joe Co. and Bear Creek Timber LLC. Both stand to see that land's property value soar if the new road becomes a reality.
"There's no question a new road would enhance property values all around it," said Tom Neubauer, owner of the Neubauer ERA real estate firm in Panama City. Neubauer cautioned, however, that those landowners better be in it for the long haul, because it could be some time before gains are realized.
"Utilities, development , that would take a long time," he said. "I don't think you'll have any immediate realization of value, but you have the long-term potential for residential growth, and then retail and commercial growth."
The initial push for the parkway, according to FDOT spokesman Tommie Speights, came from Opportunity Florida, a Northwest Florida tourist development organization. Opportunity Florida's Web site displays an advertisement for St. Joe Co., a "featured sponsor."
The parkway, according to the road's official Web site, gulfcoastparkway.com, would "provide what is essentially a missing link in the regional transportation network and would stimulate economies within the region, enhance regional mobility and hurricane evacuation, increase Tyndall Air Force Base security and relieve traffic congestion."
The five remaining possible corridors run from northwest to southeast. They all overlap somewhere; alternative 19 is the top half of 14 and the bottom half of 17 with a north-to-south connection. There also is a proposed extension that would trace up County 2321 and run by the new Northwest Florida-Panama City International Airport.
While the economic and traffic advantages might be hard to argue, the security benefit to Tyndall is debatable. Base officials are not concerned with the current level of traffic that passes through.
"While this situation creates some security concerns, they are manageable and do not pose a degradation of our mission accomplishment," said Tyndall spokesman 1st Lt. Cody Chiles.
More waiting ahead
St. Joe's land largesse is well-known; the company owns more than 600,000 acres, according to its Web site, much of it in Northwest Florida.
Bear Creek's swath of acreage, however, is not as widely recognized. The company owns more than 100,000 acres in Bay, Gulf and Calhoun counties, according to Sarah Hall, a land-use specialist with Forest Investment Associates, the Atlanta firm that manages Bear Creek's holdings.
Hall said she could not speak at length about Bear Creek, except that the owners are a mix of public and private investors, and that some of the land is being harvested for timber. Forest Creek's Web site says it specializes in managing "timberland portfolios for corporate pension plans, state and municipal retirement systems, endowments, foundations and family offices."
St. Joe officials did not return multiple calls last week for comment about its land holdings. St. Joe owns 168,000 acres in Bay County, according to Property Appraiser Dan Sowell, and about 223,000 acres (or about 60 percent of the land) in Gulf County, according to Property Appraiser Kesley Colbert.
Speights said FDOT pays no attention to whose land it will need to buy rights of way to build a road.
"It's just the path we're looking at. We're not trying to pick a particular property owner. ... DOT would not benefit by whoever owns that land," Speights said.
Whoever benefits, one thing is clear: It's going to be a while.
This week's meeting in Springfield is part of the project development and environment study, which costs $4.3 million and is slated to be done in summer 2011. After that, the DOT will start design and rightof-way acquisitions in segments, meaning one section of the road could be under construction while another part is still being designed.
"It's not so linear," Greg Garrett, senior planner with PBS&J, the engineering firm handling the project, said of the construction process.
And this is all dependent on money not running out. There is $25 million in federal earmarks already set aside, which will cover design and part of the right-of-way purchasing, according to Garrett. It could be well into the next decade before this road is complete, if ever.
As Rosemary Woods, project manager and associate vice president, explained, "Most people don't realize it takes quite a while to build a new roadway."
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