NAVARRE – On Aug. 26, 2002, work began on expanding 20 miles of State Road 87 from two lanes to four.
On July 8, 2019, after five phases, nearly 17 years, and more than $101.6 million, the Florida Department of Transportation plans to finalize the highway construction.
Driving SR 87 from U.S. Highway 98 in Navarre to U.S. Highway 90 just east of downtown Milton now offers a smooth, safe ride.
Edwin Henry, who owns Henry Company Homes, recalls when the road offered just two lanes of traffic.
“The old highway had no shoulders and it was narrow,” Henry said. “There were a lot of accidents for sure. It’ll help people, like me, who hated the road but still drove on it. It’s really, really nice.”
Besides improved road safety with the extra lanes and shoulders, the road provides another hurricane evacuation route, opens Santa Rosa County up to even more economic development and increases the amount of tourism dollars.
Already, the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge plans to open as early as next month on a 2.5-acre property off of SR 87 just north of Navarre. Having a four-lane highway near Interstate 10 also makes the county’s Northwest Florida Industrial Park @ I-10 more attractive to companies. Project “Lionheart” a medical device distribution and manufacturing company, wants to build a new facility on 8 acres in the park. The five-member Santa Rosa County Commission plans to approve a new RV camp around the SR 87 and I-10 intersection, too.
Don Gaetz, a former Florida Senate president and now the chairman of the Triumph Gulf Coast, said he expects a “significant boon” to Santa Rosa County’s economy.
“It’s important to the future economic development standpoint by making it easier for families to contemplate living in one place and doing business in another place,” Gaetz said.
Dave Piech, a Santa Rosa County commissioner who represents Navarre, agreed with Gaetz.
“This opens a lot of doors for economic development,” Piech said. “The work didn’t go as fast as some would like but it’s proof if you stick to the process you will reap the benefits.”
Additionally, the four-lane highway allows at least twice the amount of traffic to escape the Gulf Coast in case of a hurricane. During Hurricane Opal in October 1995, thousands of coastal residents sat in their cars on SR 87 in bumper-to-bumper traffic as the storm bore down.
The DOT created several four-lane highways for hurricane evacuation that connect the Florida coast to the Alabama border, such as State Road 77 and U.S. Highway 231 in Panama City, and U.S. Highway 331 in south Walton County.
The final stage of the road project, which began October 2015, is a 4.2-mile stretch from 2 miles south of the Yellow River north to Hickory Hammock Road in East Milton at an estimated cost of $31.5 million. It included an additional two-lane bridge over the Yellow River.
Navarre economic and community leaders called for SR 87 expansion to four lanes as far back as the late 1960s and early 1970s.
T.J. Goulet, the Greater Navarre Area Chamber of Commerce CEO, said he would like the road to be renamed Navarre Beach Parkway to make it obvious to tourists that they can get to the coast’s beaches quickly.
“You used to get stuck behind a dump truck and school bus going 35 mph, and there was nothing you could do about it,” Goulet said. “Now, I can set my cruise control. This increases the attractiveness of Navarre Beach. We’ll see major benefits for years to come."