On the Mark: Seeking the best eastern I-75 interchange

MARK STRAIN

If you were to poll people living in the eastern areas of Collier County, and especially in eastern Golden Gate Estates, on whether or not they would like to see an additional Interstate 75 interchange further east than the current Collier Boulevard Interchange, you would most likely receive a positive response.

An interchange further east would provide a host of benefits in time, fuel and emergency response to our more distant rural areas. From an overall public health, safety and welfare benefit, it is a no-brainer.

As with most issues that will impact many people, this one has special concerns to not only those people who might benefit, but also to both those who will be seeing their neighborhoods change as a result of a massive influx of asphalt and traffic and taxpayers county-wide who will be footing much of the cost.

The primary issue will not be whether or not such an interchange is needed, but exactly where should it be located in order to provide the most benefit with the least possible negative impact.

Everglades Boulevard has been the anticipated location of a new interchange for quite some time. The introduction of the town of Big Cypress changed all that when a new concept was introduced that could move the interchange just to the east of the Estates. Doing so would avoid huge impacts on residents along Everglades Boulevard, where the four and eventually six-laned thoroughfare was originally considered.

Big Cypress would benefit from the direct access south of their proposed town as well as from the increased traffic that would move through their community within their well-planned and anticipated traffic corridors. Big Cypress was also prepared to contribute to the efforts of making this location just east of the Estates became a reality but are now in a holding pattern due to the impact of the current economy on their project. If anything is inevitable, it is change.

With Big Cypress temporarily out of the picture, attention is now focused back on Everglades Boulevard as the preferred location for a new interchange. Significant changes have taken place since this location was originally considered; such as the establishment of the Rural Lands Stewardship Area (RLSA). The prioritization of the Everglades Boulevard location was previously subject to the expected growth rate established long before the impacts of the RLSA become visible.

The RLSA is an area of about 195,000 acres, a huge portion of which is being considered for development that could produce up to 180,000 homes, millions upon millions of square feet in commercial, retail, and industrial usage all in addition to special district uses such as universities or bio-medical hubs. The proposed town of Big Cypress, the existing town of Ave Marina and the proposed Jackson Labs project would all be within this RLSA area. Eventually the population of the RLSA could easily exceed that of the coastal areas of our county and will certainly generate several hundred thousand more people in Collier County.

Interchanges are not easy to come by. They are very expensive; they have huge impacts on surrounding areas and produce significant incentives for more intensive growth. Wherever an interchange is placed in our eastern area, it would be a good bet that we will not get another one for a very, very long time.

There are currently a lot of people who would use such an interchange. There are going to be hundreds of thousands more. If located on Everglades Boulevard, that roadway will become one of the most significant north-south corridors in all of Collier County and one of the most expensive, in both dollars and hardship, due to the impact such a roadway would have on hundreds of home sites.

This interchange should be looked at as more than a political accomplishment. It needs to be carefully thought out for the maximum benefit possible. Careful consideration needs to be given to the land owners directly impacted, the significant changes that the local community will have to adapt to, the real population which this interchange will accommodate, any other viable options and taxpayers county-wide who will be contributing to this costly effort. We need nothing less than a comprehensive plan that provides the best bang for the buck and considers all the bases before we lock ourselves in for an eternity.

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