The 30A corridor is congested with both local and visitor traffic during major annual holiday periods throughout the year, making it difficult for visitors, residents and employees to access lodging, dining, businesses, retail shopping, points of interest and beaches. Everyone would benefit from alternative modes of transportation that reduce personal vehicle use and parking demand during the peak visitation periods.
South of Choctawhatchee Bay, there are only two east-west routes that serve travelers in either direction—US 98 and 30A. Many visitors to South Walton, and most employees, access US 98 via US 331. US 98 and CR 30A are connected with only six roadways: Thompson Road (indirect access); County Highway 393; County Highway 83; CR 283; CR 395; and, much further to the east, S. WaterSound Parkway. It is within this limited transportation network that all of the extensive visitation, employment, and service trips must function, and during peak periods the network functions poorly and is extremely congested. Moreover, adequate parking for both visitors and employees in the service industry is lacking during peak periods.
Focusing on Access and Parking
Effectively serving the visitors on whom the Walton County economy depends requires a creative approach providing multimodal options for “choice riders” (choice riders are defined as those who choose to use transit when not in some way obligated to use it, e.g., visitors, shoppers and tourists), as well as those who are dependent on transit (employees and the employers who benefit from employee access to transit). A recent South Walton parking needs assessment recommended expanding the park and ride shuttle system that began last summer to provide a more complete network by providing connectivity from Scenic Gulf Drive to Inlet Beach. The Walton County Transit Feasibility Scoping Study is an investigation of the feasibility of operating a transit system that effectively serves the multiple purposes of addressing roadway congestion and parking issues along 30A. The transit study included initial review of route options, transit stop locations and issues, route interconnections, desired vehicle types (what transit will look like), hours of operation during peak and non-peak periods, frequencies, fares and transit amenities.
This study also preliminarily investigated cost feasibility, funding options, including publicly funded options through FDOT and the Federal Transit Administration and also public/private partnerships based on stakeholder willingness to privately fund a system through business and lodging contributions, vouchers or assessments to users and beneficiaries. The study included surveys of existing and potential users and beneficiaries and the survey findings indicated support for transit, described below.
Public Outreach Survey Reponses
In the online survey, 1,431 residents responded; 690 visitors responded, and the results clearly indicate the importance of addressing the continuing congestion noted in four previous traffic and parking studies. Notwithstanding the strong desire of local residents and property owners to retain 30A as a two-lane road, one particular survey response from residents and visitors reveals that the traffic conditions may be diminishing economic benefits along the corridor: to the question, “In order to avoid TRAFFIC issues, have you avoided traveling to any shops or restaurants along 30A?” 80.8% of residents and 58.3% of visitors responded, “Yes.”
Parking locations are always in high demand but low in availability in beach resort communities, due to seasonal popularity coupled with the lack of available, affordable land to construct parking facilities close to the beach. In addition, that demand also competes for available parking with employees who support the area’s service economy. The South Walton Parking Needs Assessment included observations of existing conditions along the 30A corridor, and of visitation patterns. The study noted that although an increasing number of visitors arrive via flights to the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Bay County, the South Walton 30A communities are still primarily drive-to destinations. In addition to out-of-state visitors, locals, beachgoers and those who visit for shopping, entertainment or dining have found it more and more difficult to find parking at popular destinations along 30A. This issue is highlighted in responses to a question, “In order to avoid PARKING issues, have you avoided traveling to any shops or restaurants along 30A?” 81% of residents, and 57.6% of visitors responded, “Yes.”
Interestingly, in response to the question, “Would you consider using a ‘park-and-ride’ model of mobility to park outside the congested areas of 30A, and ride into the area on transportation vehicles?” 50.0% of residents, and 47.3% of visitors responded, “Yes.”
Parking Solutions Related to Transit
The survey responses to these questions clearly indicate the nature of the issues related to parking. Since there is a limited supply of parking to serve visitors, residents and workers, either additional parking facilities need to be developed or parking management programs need to be developed (or both.) To help with the challenges of employee parking, viable park-and-ride programs can be developed so that parking is provided offsite and quick, short-distance shuttles are used to go between the parking facility and the employment centers. If the choice is between having good access for employees, or useful access for visitors and shoppers, the option of providing parking for visitors that support the economy of South Walton may be the wiser one. Certainly, addressing this two-part need is not really a choice, but a selection of viable options for a first phase of implementing transit mobility. Park-and-ride solutions need to be useful for employee convenience (timely, short-distance, during the entire workday) so they will make that choice, but the same convenience factors may also apply for day visitors to the beach areas who would use park and ride shuttles.
Visitation and Seasonal Congestion
Since hospitality services in a variety of forms are the economic engine of South Walton, it is expected that visitation will continue to be advertised, encouraged and facilitated in the future. The seasonal congestion that accompanies the high visitation season is a sure sign of the perception of the 30A region as a favored destination for visitors with higher levels of discretionary income to spend. In fact, some of the more high profile destinations along the corridor attract individuals with the willingness to pay a high cost for lodging, entertainment, dining and services. It would therefore not be surprising to find that convenient, comfortable transportation services, perhaps in the form of unique transit vehicles, would be a desired service and would be used. This possibility is supported by responses by visitors to a question, “Would you be willing to utilize transit (i.e. shuttle, bus circulator, etc.) to meet your mobility needs if it were available?” 76.0% of visitors responded, “Yes.”
Although the critical issues of seasonal congestion are different for residents who can choose not to visit the 30A corridor during high season (except for employees), the same question posed to residents also got a positive response, “Would you be willing to utilize transit (i.e. shuttle, bus circulator, etc.) to meet your mobility needs if it were available?” 65.0% of residents responded, “Yes.” When three quarters of visitors and nearly two-thirds of residents respond this favorably to the use of transit if it was made available, the prospect of success, at least during the high season, would seem to be high.
Summary and Conclusions
Traffic congestion along the 30A corridor and the accompanying parking congestion have been studied and documented over time in multiple reports, and in each study multimodal transportation options were identified as means of reducing vehicular traffic on the roadway. In a recent series of 30A Mobility workshops facilitated by the Seaside Institute, representatives of the International Transportation Innovation Center (ITIC: http://www.itic-sc.com/) and the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR:http://cuicar.com/) identified and reviewed longer-term options for transportation mobility: unique transit vehicles including low-emission and zero-emission vehicles, autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, on-call taxi systems like UBER and shared vehicle systems. However, when any of these modes share the existing, unimproved 30A corridor with a high volume of low-speed, congested traffic during the high seasons, each would also be in the congested queue. After comparing options with the workshop attendees and discussing the results of the transit studies with the attendees, stakeholders and advocates, it was concluded that the first strategy to reduce private vehicle congestion along the corridor was to reduce the need for employees to drive to work destinations along the corridor and use scarce parking, thus markedly reducing both congestion and parking issues. A group of transit advocates are currently pursuing funding options for developing a park-and-ride/shuttle system that could provide employee and day visitor access to South Walton without arriving in a private vehicle.
David Haight is an urban planner and project manager working with Atkins Engineering on The Walton County Transit Feasibility Scoping Study, and a consultant to Walton County as part of the 30A Mobility Project. A summary of the study findings can be viewed on line at http://30amobility.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Walton-County-Transit-Feasibility-Scoping-Study.pdf.