Nearly $500 million in state funding secured for the planned replacement of the Pensacola Bay Bridge could be at risk if the project is further delayed, state officials said this week.
“If we don’t stay on the current course, it could jeopardize the funding,” said Ian Satter, the public information officer for the Chipley-based Florida Department of Transportation district which covers Northwest Florida.
The state money was secured by State Senator Don Gaetz during his time as Senate President in 2013. Gaetz locked down the funds so that a new bay bridge would be toll-free, but now officials say that a toll bridge could be back on the table if that funding is lost because of delays. The current bridge was completed in 1962 and is listed as “structurally deficient.”
News of the funding issue came after Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson acknowledged that he had spoken with Gulf Breeze Mayor Matt Dannheisser about withdrawing a public records request, which Robinson said several officials told him could result in delays to the project.
But Satter said Wednesday that it was Dannheisser’s desire for additional public input meetings, not the records request, which prompted FDOT’s concerns about the funding. Dannheisser has objected to FDOT’s plans to award the bid before the public has a chance to review the design proposals.
“We’ll fill any public records request we can,” Satter said. “But having additional public meetings at this point could push the start of the project back six months to a year. If the project gets delayed that long, those funds aren’t just going to stay there,” he added, noting that the amount budgeted for the projected represents an entire year’s worth of bridge funding statewide.
Public should have more say in bridge, mayor says
Dannheisser, who has been at odds with FDOT over everything from the bridge landing to the value of city-owned land FDOT needs for right of way, said Wednesday that the public deserves more of a voice in the process.
“I don’t think that the public has had adequate opportunity to give input on the bridge design,” said Dannheisser. “This is the most important construction project in the history of Northwest Florida. It will have a profound impact on all of us.”
Satter says FDOT’s process is designed to get the best deal for taxpayers. “Doing it this way protects the integrity of the process,” Satter said. “It’s really about getting the best possible product for taxpayers at the best possible price.” FDOT has held several public input meetings over the past few years, Satter noted, which he said have resulted in “hundreds and hundreds” of comments from the public.
Robinson has supported Dannheisser’s efforts to secure an additional public meeting before the final selection “As I said at a TPO meeting, I do not understand how a public meeting after bids are submitted but before final selection jeopardizes the project,” said Robinson. “After all, no one can alter their bid.”
An additional public meeting before FDOT’s selection committee completes its work could open the bid process up to question or prompt one of the contractors bidding on the project to file a protest, Satter said, noting that members of the public will have an opportunity to give input at a July 7 meeting in Milton.
That meeting, which will be held at 10:30 a.m. at FDOT’s Milton Operations Center at 6025 Old Bagdad Highway, was originally scheduled to take place at FDOT’s Chipley headquarters — located more than 100 miles from the bridge site — but was moved after public outcry. By the time of the meeting, the design proposals will already have been scored, but Satter says that plans could be tweaked as a result of public input.
“No matter how much I do not like or agree with the FDOT process, I am not willing to risk that kind of appropriation because it is too hard to work back through the legislature,” added Robinson. “A toll bridge would be devastating to both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties and I am unwilling for that to be the choice for Escambia County.”
Commissioner raises Sunshine concerns
Meanwhile, at least one elected official has concerns that a phone conversation between Robinson and Dannheisser could have violated Florida’s open government rules, commonly referred to as the “Sunshine law.”
Dannheisser made a verbal request for the design proposals received by FDOT at a June 8 meeting of the Florida-Alabama Transportation Planning Organization, or TPO, of which both Robinson and Dannheisser are members. Robinson said Wednesday that he spoke with Austin Mount, the executive director of the West Florida Regional Planning Council, by phone after the meeting.
“I then called [FDOT district secretary] Tommy Barfield to confirm what was happening,” Robinson said. “He told me the money could be lost but he did not tell me to call [Dannheisser]. Independently, I did ask Don Gaetz as well to confirm the funds were at risk which he did. Then I called Matt on the public records request.”
“[Robinson and Dannheisser] sit on the TPO together,” wrote Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill on social media. “TPO is under the Sunshine law. This matter is clearly a current event before the board. The request for information specifically was discussed in the last [TPO meeting]. So how can one member of a Sunshine board have a private phone call with another member of that board on a matter before the board?”
Robinson said that because Dannheisser’s records request was his own and not one made on behalf of the TPO, he doesn’t believe the conversation was subject to Florida’s sunshine law. Robinson added that he and Barfield also spoke about a right-of-way issue in Gulf Breeze, about which he did not discuss with Dannheisser as it could conceivably come before the TPO and would thus be covered by the sunshine law’s open meetings requirement.
Robinson said he didn’t specifically ask or pressure Dannheisser to withdraw his request. “Matt was welcome to do whatever he needed to do with his request,” said Robinson. “My only comment was, ‘Are you willing to risk $500 million for the request?’ and that I had talked to people in the know who felt it was jeopardizing the money.”
After speaking with Robinson, Dannheisser withdrew his request, saying in an email that he didn’t want to do anything that could risk the funding or delay the project.