COLLIER COUNTY — A Collier County planning effort to get cars off the road has hit a rough patch with environmental advocates.
It’s called the Master Mobility Plan, and it kicked off earlier this year with a $473,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, a piece of the federal stimulus package.
The study is aimed at reducing greenhouse gases from vehicle exhaust in Collier County by reducing how often people have to get in their cars to drive somewhere and reducing how long they have to drive to get there.
A meeting is planned for 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Golden Gate Community Center to unveil draft recommendations and get public input before the plan makes the rounds of county advisory boards on its way to Collier commissioners in December.
Environmental advocates say the plan has veered from being a new look at ways to get around to being an excuse to keep doing the same thing: build more roads _ including their most hated proposed roads project, an Interstate 75 interchange at Everglades Boulevard in Golden Gate Estates.
“There’s supposed to be a mind shift here, and it’s not happening,” Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said.
Not so, says the county’s point man on the Master Mobility Plan
“The goal of the study is not to build more roads, it’s to build less,” deputy growth management administrator Nick Casalanguida said.
Among the draft recommendations in the Master Mobility Plan:
- Building houses and commercial areas close together so people can walk or bicycle to work.
- Incorporating bus transit into the design of new communities.
- Connecting commercial areas and neighborhoods so people can get between them more easily.
- Looking at a program in Golden Gate Estates to transfer development rights and lessen sprawl.
Environmental groups are questioning a change in the way the county is measuring success under the plan’s recommendations.
In the grant application to the EPA in 2009, the county proposed to measure reductions in Vehicle Miles Traveled, or VMTs. Since then, the county has added a measure it is calling Vehicle Hours Traveled, or VHTs.
In one example, adding roads to improve connectivity in one sub-area of the county around Immokalee would increase vehicle miles traveled by almost 2 percent _ the opposite of the Master Mobility Plan’s original objective.
Drivers traveling more in the sub-area translates to a 1 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled outside the sub-area, according to county figures.
Using the other measure, though, adding roads for connectivity would reduce vehicle hours traveled by almost 28 percent in the sub-area, according to the county.
Casalanguida called using VHTs as well as VMTs a natural progression for the study.
“You can’t look at one without considering the other,” he said.
Environmental advocates are wary of the new measure, which they fear will amount to manipulating the Master Mobility Plan to justify more roads.
“They’ve been pretty obstinate about it, they want more roads,” Collier Audubon Society advocate Brad Cornell said.
The plan needs to be refocused on transit-oriented development and redirecting land uses, Conservancy of Southwest Florida government relations director Nicole Johnson said.
“We’re certainly not giving up the fight to get it back on the track it should be on,” she said.
Particularly troubling to environmental advocates is the inclusion of the Everglades Boulevard interchange in the planning process.
They say the county is failing to justify the interchange on policy points and so is trying to shoehorn it into other planning efforts, like the Master Mobility Plan.
After state and federal agencies raised numerous environmental concerns about the interchange, the Florida Department of Transportation is undertaking an analysis of how the project will affect eight protected species.
Supporters of the project say they fear the study could kill the interchange, which they say is needed for better access to the Estates.
Stopping the interchange has long been a top priority of local environmental groups, but now groups from all over South Florida have put the project in their sights.
The Everglades Coalition, comprising 54 groups, adopted a resolution in July that cites impacts to the Florida black bear and endangered Florida panther, including disrupting important wildlife travel corridors.
They estimate 10,000 acres of panther habitat would be lost to the interchange and to the wider roads and development that would come with it, making the costs of environmental mitigation an “insurmountable” hurdle.
Casalanguida, the growth administrator, said the Master Mobility Plan is using the Everglades Boulevard interchange just as it is using every other project on the county’s long-range transportation plan.
He said the Master Mobility Plan is about more than the proposed interchange and should not become a stage for that fight.
“This study is not the project for it,” Casalanguida said.
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats