The question: What to do in Walton County about tourist growth?
Here are the facts: The number of overnight tourists in South Walton in 2002 was 1,017,978. The number of overnight tourists in South Walton in 2008 was 2,898,578, which was a 185 percent increase. Based on these growth numbers, all of Walton County and particularly South Walton could experience increased gridlock on our roads during the ensuing years.
The only recent significant reduction in the number of overnight tourists in South Walton was due to the BP oil spill in 2010 when the tourist count was 1,515,528. For 2011, there was still a lingering negative effect caused by the oil spill.
The statistics source? “Visitors by Season” and “Overnight Tourist Estimate Trend” published by Walton County TDC.
So far in 2012, we have all experienced, and probably gladly, a dramatic increase in the number of overnight tourists and the not-so-“glad” related traffic issues.
From these statistics, who could deny the probability that within the next decade the average yearly count of overnight tourists could reach and exceed 3,500,000, which is only a 20.7 percent increase over the 2008 statistic?
That frightening tourist growth count could be the ruin of South Walton because of the potential traffic on the roads, especially for Scenic Highway 30A with its two lane road and its bike path, both of which carry on them potential disaster, gridlock, and allow no place to park.
What is the solution? What needs to be provided by our county government?
Here are suggestions to give to our commissioners:
*Widen 30A to include an exclusive lane for fast bikes and golf carts.
*Require Regional Utilities to upgrade the reliability of the water mains.
*Require development of several parking areas on appropriately located county land on arteries running north and south.
*Endorse a privately owned and operated transportation system in South Walton and add service to and from north Walton.
*Create a Gulf-front boardwalk from one end of the county to the other, wide enough for all to enjoy, i.e., pedestrians to walk and jog, allow recreational, slow bikes, and have sheriff deputies patrol the boardwalk on bikes, which will keep them fit.
Your first reaction is: “It can’t be done because the Gulf-front owners would prevent the boardwalk!” that is what was said in all the other beaches and they proceeded. Those owners will be the first people going for their morning walks/runs on the boardwalk. Your second reaction is: “The boardwalk and the needed changes to the roads and infrastructure will cost millions!”
When you simmer down and consider the suggestions, you will agree that somehow they need to be done. Forward-thinking counties have created such an amenity. We can no longer ask our tourists to put their children on bikes on the existing bike path that is the shoulder of the highway. Having bikes on the shoulder of 30A is irresponsible. Someone is going to get killed. All walking/jogging and recreational bike riding should be on the Gulf-front boardwalk.
A hurricane may wash away the boardwalk, but we are impacted by a hurricane, on the average, every 10 years. That many years of enjoyment of the boardwalk for all that live here and visit here is just about the time for the maintenance of the boardwalk anyway.
Not just a few, but hundreds of other oceanfront areas in the United States have successfully achieved this. We just need to start the planning. There has been a plan in the works since 1996, but not much has progressed. We have to restart the plan now, since the millions from the BP settlement will be here to pay for the suggested changes.
Additionally, the Southwest Airlines half-cent payment from the TDC is being reduced or eliminated. With those funds staying in the TDC, that half-cent could provide substantial funding toward paying for the suggestions. There are also the Obama infrastructure funds that could be allocated.
In that regard, here are more specific issues to contemplate for the betterment of Walton County:
*Seasidepresents a bottleneck to the widening of 30A at Seaside, but the county could buy the right-of-way to allow the widening there.
*Other 30A communities will have to allow widening also
*Unlike many counties, Walton County owns a majority of the land and the right of ways that need to be dedicated for the use of those of us who live here and the tourists who come to enjoy our paradise
*While our cherished Coastal Dune Lakes will be modestly affected by the widening of 30A, the impact would not be any more than what occurred when 30A was created
With the voices of many forward thinking Walton residents being heard at BCC meetings, action will begin. I believe the overnight tourist impact is here to stay, even when hurricanes and oil spills hit us; but, we can overcome those. Join me in the urgent demand for proper and well-engineered improvements to our wonderful area for the betterment of all.
Daryl Dodson is a Miramar Beach resident.