You only get one chance to make a good first impression and that's one reason the road to Panama City Beach is getting a facelift. The other reason is public safety.
Millions of visitors come to the beach each year and many of them enter the city on State Road 79. Getting to the B. V. Buchanan Bridge over West Bay means the beach is just ahead and planners say that's where the experience of a world-class destination begins.
Bay County and the City of Panama City Beach are partners in a federally-funded $1.9 million West Bay Bridge improvement project. "We are hoping to improve the gateway and also the entire corridor," said John Alaghemand, Assistant City Manager.
The city, which has ongoing landscape and sidewalk projects in the vicinity of the bridge, will administer the new project. Improvements will be made at the bridge and along State Road 79 from County Road 388 to Panama City Beach Parkway.
Additions will include new sidewalks, enhanced lighting and gravel parking under the bridge. Palm trees, wildflowers, grasses and shrubbery will beautify the landscape along the roadway.
"We were trying to install native type landscaping, something that wouldn't require continuous maintenance and also irrigation," Alaghemand said.
There's a public safety component, too. Fiber optic cable will be laid along SR 79 to expand Bay County's Intelligent Transportation System (ITS).
"We can have eyes on that corridor," said Keith Bryant, Traffic Engineering Manager. "If we see an incident that occurs along it, we can notify 911, we can notify law enforcement to let them know what's going on [and] we can also retime the corridor."
Eyes on the West Bay corridor mean five new cameras to feed real time images back to the Traffic Management Center. "We can't use these cameras for enforcement... they're strictly for monitoring traffic conditions and moving traffic," Bryant said.
The project also includes a new signal at the intersection of SR 79 and CR 388 – a flashing caution light until traffic volume warrants a timed signal. "That traffic signal will be a huge benefit... that's a great part of this project," Bryant said.
The addition of Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport and other planned growth have planners getting ready for an expected spurt in West Bay area development. "I would say it's a sleeping giant in Bay County," Alaghemand said.
Construction is expected to get underway in late July with completion just in time for the 2014 summer season.