WALTON COUNTY — Officials hope to get the ball rolling on the first stage of a new public transportation system.

Funded by a service development grant from the Florida Department of Transportation for more than $1.5 million, the project is expected to be live by the end of this year, said county Planning Director Mac Carpenter.

Three shuttles able to carry 28 passengers each will travel from northern Walton to South Walton with two stops in Freeport.

Terminals will be located at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs, Freeport City Hall, Freeport Commons and the Walton County Courthouse Annex in Santa Rosa Beach.

"It's available for anybody that wants to ride in either direction," said Carpenter, who added that fares will be free for the first three years.

Louis Svehla, spokesman for Walton County, said it has been working to install a "people mover" for years.

He added that the grant will cover the project's first three years. It would then be up to the county to assume responsibility.

"All of the details are still kind of being worked out," Svehla said. "Large scale, we would like to have some way to be able to move mass amounts of people more efficiently and more effectively than we are now."

According to Carpenter, there are also efforts to install other transportation systems in South Walton that will travel east to west. Depending on funding — which he expected to come from the county, tourist development bed tax and private contributions — the additional routes should be live next year.

Svehla said the ultimate goal was to have all major areas in Walton County connected.

Both agreed that in addition to spreading opportunity, the shuttles would also reduce traffic along the notoriously busy U.S. Highway 98. 

Looking ahead, Carpenter said that transportation schedules would be limited at first. He hoped that by next spring break the project would be running seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to midnight.

"It will seriously improve the opportunity for folks that live in north county to have employment in south county," Carpenter said. "Especially in the retail and service industries where we are in such desperate need of employees."