Escambia County leaders want people headed to the popular Blue Angels practices at Pensacola Naval Air Station on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to avoid using Gulf Beach Highway — the most direct route between downtown Pensacola and Perdido Key to the base’s back entrance at Blue Angel Parkway.
The county is encouraging people headed to the practices to instead go north to Sorrento Road and then head south on Blue Angel Parkway.
Heavy traffic from the practices is blocking residents of neighborhoods along Gulf Beach Highway from being able to get in and out their neighborhoods, said Chip Simmons of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office.
Blue Angel Parkway is better designed to handle the thousands of cars waiting to enter the base’s back gate, he said.
“The Navy base is only going to let so many cars in at a time, and we would rather have those cars sitting on Blue Angel Parkway than on Gulf Beach Highway,” he said.
Starting Tuesday, Sheriff’s Office deputies will be stationed at the intersection of Sorrento Road/Perdido Key Boulevard and Gulf Beach Highway/Innerarity Point to help route practice traffic, according to the county.
In a news release, the county asked people coming to the practices from the north to merge onto Blue Angel Parkway at the most northern point possible. The county said traffic signals would be adjusted on the parkway to expedite traffic flow into the base.
Doug Underhill, chairman of the Escambia County Commission, said the traffic flow changes were the result of a meeting between the county, Sheriff’s Office and base leaders.
“The neighborhoods just outside the west gate really suffer with the amount of traffic,” he said. “Like all citizens, they are huge fans of the air shows and the Blue Angels, but those roads are not designed to handle that level of of traffic.”
Underhill said there have also been concerns about people parking outside the base’s perimeter fence and watching the shows.
“There is never an appropriate time for a civilian to park along the fence of a military installation. The security forces have to be on their toes, they are on a combat posture every day. You cannot have a tailgating type of event happening right outside the gate,” he said.
The base closed its main entrance off Navy Boulevard to non-Department of Defense identification holders last year and has since required museum visitors to make a 20-minute drive to the base’s back entrance off Blue Angel Parkway.
Thursday’s announcement of traffic flow changes came a week after U.S. Rep Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, visited the area and talked about improving access to the base’s National Naval Aviation Museum and Barrancas National Cemetery.
Gatez said he gets many calls from people concerned about access to the base’s museum, cemetery, national park and historic lighthouse.
He said he was working with Navy leaders to see how to improve access for the public while maintaining security for the thousands of sailors and Marines who live and work there. Gaetz said he hoped to tour the base with leaders of the Navy’s facilities department next month.
Patrick Nichols, a spokesman for the Naval Air Station, said the base has no changes planned to its access policies.
“We ask that everyone entering the west gate have ID cards ready for all adult occupants of the vehicle when approaching the gate,” he said.