Guest commentary: New I-75 interchange needs to be an asset — permanently

By the most important of measures — safety — the need for a new interchange at Everglades Boulevard and Interstate 75 is irrefutable. Currently, the permanent escape route for people on Everglades Boulevard South is to drive north in hopes of finding their intersection with Golden Gate Boulevard passable.

A second but erratic way out exists five miles south, off 42nd Avenue Southeast — a single-lane dirt road, heavily rutted and blocked by a padlocked wooden gate, a clumsy emergency route for accessing I-75 by any standard.

What if the cause for evacuation originates at the Golden Gate Boulevard/Everglades Boulevard intersection? Incidences such as a hazardous spill with noxious gas? Or a collision sparking a wildfire? The fallout from such an emergency could easily and quickly cut a swath down Everglades Boulevard South.

Safety for up to 2,500 residents and 500 elementary school students is at stake. From the intersection of Golden Gate and Everglades boulevards, south to I-75, there are 20 avenues, each avenue platted for about 100 homes; a 5.3-mile stretch of road with room for at least 2,500 homes.

Adding to the population is Palmetto Elementary School, with a student population of 514 young children. The school is about three miles south of the Golden Gate Boulevard/Everglades Boulevard intersection. How does a school bus get to the school if the Golden Gate Boulevard/Everglades Boulevard intersection is closed? The answer is, with great difficulty.

Participants at the public-information meeting, officials at Florida Department of Transportation and Collier County transportation officials concur that the interchange serves an essential need. Finally, an issue with overwhelming agreement.

The harmony may be relatively short-lived if not all the players are realistic in their expectations. While providing an essential second egress for the immediate community, the interchange promises to open up a more direct path for thousands more.

According to Development of Regional Impact (DRI) plans, Big Cypress proposes almost 9,000 residential units. Big Cypress will be east of DeSoto Boulevard (which is just east of Everglades Boulevard) and runs from north of Oil Well Road to south of Randall Boulevard.

A second DRI, Ave Maria, still anticipates 11,000 residential units, a large hotel and a 6,000-student university. Those many residents and students will be traveling to the city of Naples and surrounding areas from time to time. Until and unless other routes are built, Everglades Boulevard will frequently be a road of choice for local commuters.

That is partly why the 2030 Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) for Collier County shows the traffic on Everglades Boulevard South increasing from a volume of 13,600 vehicles in 2010 to an estimated 29,300 users by 2030. Part of the 2015 LRTP reflects incremental plans to improve Everglades Boulevard from I-75 to its northern termination on Immokalee Road.

The entire length will require 200 feet of right of way in order to expand to four divided lanes. The current projected cost of the project is slightly over $190 million. There exists a measurable and predictable increase in traffic with the creation of this much-needed I-75 interchange. The interchange will be viewed by many as a blessing, but will bring heartache to others.

One hardship that can be avoided is the unjustifiable fee for accessing this short portion of I-75. Like all commuters from Immokalee Road to Collier Boulevard, those whose access point will be Everglades Boulevard should have use of their interstate highway without paying a fee.

To offer a toll reduction or refund agreement is neither workable nor dependable in the long run. While an arrangement might be made in the most honorable of fashions today, the future of Alligator Alley is sadly unpredictable. All drivers who enter or exit I-75 at the new interchange must be guaranteed free access.

The only honest, reliable and permanent solution is to relocate the toll plaza. The best location that serves Collier County is east of DeSoto Boulevard. A permanent solution must be found before the interchange is built and operational. A community dependent upon a toll road for a main transportation artery is neither desirable nor marketable.

Downs taught economics at a community college and worked at various positions from journeyman printer to computer system analyst, all in Maryland. Citizens Transportation Coalition worked against privatizing Alligator Alley and for a traffic light at Woods Edge and U.S. 41 in North Naples. She also serves as vice president of operations for the nonprofit group Housing Opportunities Made for Everyone, which purchases foreclosed homes in Collier County and rehabs and sells them to qualified, first-time home buyers.

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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