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Highway 90 Debate Rages As Comment Deadline Nears

Sandra Averhart

Santa Rosa County residents have until this Tuesday, September 15 to comment on four proposed alternatives for relieving traffic congestion on a six mile section of U.S. Highway 90 through Milton.

The need is clear, but there remains a great divide over which option will be most the beneficial to the city with the least amount of impact.

It is the two-lane stretch of U.S. 90 - in the heart of downtown Milton - that’s at the center of debate over what should be done to alleviate the overloaded roadway,

Right next to the two-lane Highway 90 Bridge over the Blackwater River is the historic Fisher-Hamilton building. Nearby and also within a few feet of the highway is the historic Imogene Theatre.

“This is one of two historic districts in Santa Rosa, the city of Milton historic district and the Village of Bagdad historic district,” said Vernon Compton, president of president of the Santa Rosa County Historical Society.

Compton is also a member of the board of Main Street Milton, which has the dual mission of preserving the city’s historic identity, while also improving economic development within the downtown area.

“We really don’t believe there is an either or,” he said. “We believe there is a way to find an alternative that serves the transportation needs of the community that also preserves the other aspects that people love about Milton. We do not want to see it become an expressway or through fare.”

But that could happen if the Florida Department of Transportation chooses to widen U.S. 90 through downtown, possibly sacrificing the Fisher-Hamilton building, which Compton says is one of the most historic structures in the Florida Panhandle.

“It was built and has been standing since 1877,” Compton said. “So when we reflect on the history of Santa Rosa County and Milton - through every hurricane, flood, multiple devastating fires through downtown Milton - the Fisher-Hamilton building is still standing. So I think it would be a sad testament to see it lost to a road project.”

Of course, nothing has been decided at this point.

Credit Sandra Averhart
Milton area residents and business owners attend FDOT meeting on proposed plans for U-S Highway 90.

But, the subject was on the minds of many residents who attended FDOT’s recent public meeting on its Project Development &Environmental or PD&E study of corridor alternatives for Highway 90.

“I’m really concerned first & foremost about the historical buildings, because I think if they’re torn down for the sake of progress, that’s like ripping out the heart of Milton; anything but that, and also the environment,” said Kay Romines. She was among more than 200 people, who packed into the Santa Rosa County Auditorium on September 1 for a chance to find out more about the four routes being considered.

During the meeting, FDOT showed a short video that detailed current conditions on Highway 90.

Currently, two segments are of the roadway that are already over capacity, including S.R. 87N to Canal Street and Willing Street to Ward Basis Road.

Excessive truck traffic averaging 8% of the overall traffic totals nearly 1,400 trucks per day in the downtown area.

Credit Florida Department of Transportation
Florida Department of Transportation
Proposed U-S 90 corridor alternatives

There are four corridors that are under consideration to deal with the growing traffic on U.S. 90.

  • The first alternative would add capacity to the existing roadway by widening Highway 90 to 4-5 lanes through downtown Milton.
  • The second option would relocate U.S. 90 further south along the city’s southern boundaries, running adjacent to the rail road for a bit then connecting with Old U.S. 90 and rejoining 90 at Glover Lane.
  • The third option is similar to Corridor 2 in its alignment to the south, but it’s shorter. It would utilize vacant lands south of the historic district and tie back into the existing U.S. 90 at SR 89.
  • The fourth option would widen 90 to 3 lanes through downtown, with two going in one direction and the third in the other. Additionally, it calls for a more northerly corridor to include a new two-lane bridge from the east side of the Blackwater River to a new 3-lane alignment just north of Berryhill Road and connecting at SR 87N.

Each option has its pros and cons. Alternative One, which would have no direct impact on homes, received the highest score on DOT’s evaluation matrix. Alternative four received the second-highest score, followed by alternative 3. And, proposed alternative 2 scored lowest.
Also, there is a ‘no build’ option.

Throughout the auditorium, large maps of the proposed corridors were on display, with DOT engineers available at each to answer questions.

Resident Bill Walter was among those making the rounds.

“My takeaway is that Alternatives 1 and 4 kill the downtown and any hope of having a business revival,” Walter said. “Two and three, by bypassing the area, would be more essential to a revitalized downtown as far as I’m concerned.”

There was a completely different perspective from Janine Rij, owner of Santa Rosa Jewelers on the corner of U-S 90 and Santa Rosa Street.

Credit Sandra Averhart
Residents get a look a maps of each proposed corridor alternative.

“Downtown Milton is dying,” said Rij, who agreed with the Milton City Council, which passes a resolution in favor of Corridor Alternative 1. “The best route is to come straight through downtown Milton, so we can revitalize downtown Milton and get some business.”

But, Santa Rosa businessman Jack Sanborn says he would like to scrap the options and start over.

“My takeaway is that a ‘no build’ would be fantastic,” said Sanborn, owner of Adventures Unlimited north of Milton, adding that the goal is to protect downtown and build up as a destination. “It’s a beautiful riverfront, along with historic buildings and we don’t want to see anything destroy those historic buildings.”

For the same reasons, the “no build” is also preferred by Milton Mayor Wesley Meiss, who also is a member of the Santa Rosa Historical Society. And, that brings us back to concerns about the possible demolition of the old Fisher-Hamilton Building to make room to expand U-S 90 downtown. FDOT project manager Peggy Kelley says the concern has been duly noted.

“Honestly, my full intent if that building can be moved - and alternative 1 is the preferred, I don’t know - I’m hoping we can save it,” Kelly said. “I really do, because it’s been a part of the community; it’s been here a long time.

Again, there are four proposed corridor alternatives and a ‘no build’ option on the table as it relates to plans for easing traffic congestion on Highway through downtown Milton.

The deadline to submit public comment is this Tuesday, September 15.

There won’t be another opportunity to weigh in until 2017, when a public hearing on the agency’s preferred alternative is scheduled. A final design could be presented in 2018.

For more information, check out the project website.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.