NAPLES — The door to creating a corridor between Orlando and Immokalee just got a little wider.
The Florida Department of Transportation is fast-tracking a study of the Heartland Parkway, a proposed route that would extend from Interstate 4, west of Orlando, south to State Road 82 or State Road 29 in the Immokalee area, perhaps joining with Alligator Alley.
Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad announced the news as part of a statewide plan to address transportation issues.
“In order for the state to maintain our competitive edge, we must not only maintain our existing system at the highest levels, we must also plan for a transportation system not just for the next decade but for decades to come,” Prasad said. “This means we must plan and develop our future corridors.”
The Future Corridors Action Plan, developed in 2006, identified 14 initial study areas where DOT should work with partners to explore new or improved highway corridors.
Five of the corridors exist today and would be altered to serve new functions, like tolled express lanes. The remaining study areas aren’t well-connected by a high-speed, high-traffic corridor today, or there aren’t enough lanes to support anticipated growth demand in the next 50 years.
One of those study areas is the Heartland Parkway, which the state believes would provide access to and from economically distressed or developing areas, provide emergency evacuation and response, and would support a regional vision.
The parkway was chosen, according to DOT officials, to provide better north-south and east-west movement throughout the state.
“The Southwest Florida region has a high rate of population and traffic growth, but has few options for high-speed, high-capacity travel in the region today beyond I-75 and U.S. 41. This limited connectivity is one of the factors which has limited the region’s economic development potential,” wrote Dick Kane, communications director for DOT.
Under the plan, DOT, in conjunction with the Department of Economic Opportunity, state Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, would study these corridors so that they are preserved for the future.
“One of the purposes of a future corridors initiative is to identify where future corridors may be needed over the next 50 years, so we can begin planning for these corridors today,” Kane wrote. “If FDOT, local governments and partners do not begin planning for these corridors now, we will not have plans in place to address these long-term statewide mobility needs.”
The Polk County Transportation Planning Organization has endorsed a new toll road in the Heartland corridor, according to DOT.
Officials in DeSoto, Hendry, and Glades counties have passed resolutions in support.
According to Kane, Heartland 2060, a 50-year initiative convened by the Central Florida Regional Planning Council, will provide a basis for making decisions about alternatives within this study area. It will identify areas the region would like to develop as future economic centers as well as land that should be conserved in the future.
“It will give us another alternative to I-75 and I-95 on each coast,” Commissioner Jim Coletta said. “This is good future planning. This will probably not happen in a five-year span or a 10-year-span. That’s what good government does. You have an obligation to the next generation coming down.”
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Collier County has had a love-hate relationship with the Heartland project.
In 2007, Collier commissioners voted 4-1 against the resolution of support for a feasibility study for the Heartland Parkway.
“It’s opening up a remote area for development,” Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said. “It’s not part of a larger strategy of what Florida will be. You can’t put a road in and then hope for a casual build-out.”
Commissioner Jim Coletta, who represents Immokalee, was the only commissioner in favor of the project, which also drew support from the Economic Development Council of Collier County, Immokalee leaders and officials in rural towns and counties that stretch along the road’s proposed path through rural Central Florida.
Environmental groups opposed the project
Coletta said he’s happy to see the Heartland Parkway back on the fast track.
“It will give us another alternative to I-75 and I-95 on each coast,” he said. “This is good future planning. This will probably not happen in a five-year span or a 10-year-span. That’s what good government does. You have an obligation to the next generation coming down.”
Kane said the state has no specific time table, but added that the Collier to Polk corridor has undergone some analysis. However, the design, right of way and construction phases for the Central Polk Parkway aren’t currently scheduled in the FDOT five-year work program, which runs through fiscal year 2016.
Coletta said without a four-lane highway, Immokalee will be limited in its ability to grow.
“The Heartland (Parkway) would greatly benefit Immokalee, even now. If people knew it was in the plans to complete the highway, it would help with the expansion of the economic base,” he said.
Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton, whose organization opposed the project four years ago, said “bad ideas never die.”
“It’s opening up a remote area for development,” she said. “It’s not part of a larger strategy of what Florida will be. You can’t put a road in and then hope for a casual build-out.”
“We are getting into a bind with the environmental community. Everything, from the Everglades (Boulevard) interchange at I-75 to the 951 expansion into Lee County, everything is coming to a dead stop. It is creating such gridlock that we will never overcome it,” he said.
Payton said the road could have a significant effect on lands tapped for conservation or agriculture, as well as creating wetlands issues. She said these projects will just “drain off” DOT money that could be better spent in improving the current road network.
Payton, noting the Florida Wildlife Federation plans to continue opposing the project, said one of the major impediments for the opposition to the project is that the state’s Department of Community Affairs has been shuttered.
“We’ve lost our partner,” she said. “As a result, we have lost someone who will work to protect environmental values.”