Article by: Katie Landeck

For full story visit: News Herald

The majority of this year’s infrastructure sales tax will go toward East Avenue, “not only for this project, but the project going on with Eastern Shipbuilding and anticipated traffic increases associated with that,” City Manager Jeff Brown said.

PANAMA CITY — With the county’s new infrastructure sales tax starting to come in, Panama City plans to put the majority of this year’s funds toward improving East Avenue.

East Avenue, particularly the bridge, has been a problem area for years, but new growth in the area has put the problem front and center.

“The (Port Panama City) expansion will require the East Avenue Bridge to be replaced,” City Manager Jeff Brown said. “It’s not only for this project, but the project going on with Eastern Shipbuilding and anticipated traffic increases associated with that.”

The bridge, which officials consider to be in “very poor” condition, can accommodate only 32 tons at a time, which is not sufficient for a fully loaded cargo truck. The allowed tonnage forces the paper mill to reroute trucks and will create a problem for the port’s planned cargo facility.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has agreed to fund 75 percent of the project, to the tune of $3.9 million in federal funding, according to FDOT spokesman Ian Satter. The county and Panama City are expecting to pick up the rest.

At Tuesday’s Panama City Commission meeting, commissioners set aside $500,000 for the bridge and $750,000 toward reconstruction of the portion of road south of Nelson Street.

Brown said an analysis has shown the portion needs to be entirely reconstructed to handle the expected traffic, and though there has been a push to change East Avenue from a local road to a state road, at this point the city needs to move ahead regardless.

Port Director Wayne Stubbs said he appreciates the city moving forward with the repairs in anticipation of the growth. Without the improvements, the port would have to route trucks through the paper mill.

“Everyone is coming together,” Stubbs said.

Negotiations are ongoing regarding which agencies will pay for which improvements, so the commission approved the plan with the caveat things might change.

The 2017 plan also includes $150,000 to reconstruct Fourth Street and $250,000 for utility improvements. In 2018, the plan is to use $3.2 million to replace a 10-inch water line on Baker Court to help improve the quality of the drinking water in St. Andrews and the central part of the city.

The work “really needs to be done,” Mayor Greg Brudnicki said, noting passing the infrastructure sales tax has been helpful.

“Who knows what we would have done without it?” he said. “It would have been a tougher negotiation. How do we come up with these funds? Do we dip into reserves? Everyone benefits from this situation. … Right off the bat, it’s a very good thing for citizens because it is absolutely needed.”

The commission plans to appoint members to the infrastructure surtax review board at its next meeting, scheduled for June 27.