Brent Batten: U.S. 41 carries history on its shoulders

BRENT BATTEN

In an age where state employees are forced to take what amounts to a 3 percent pay cut, when hundreds of millions of dollars are chopped from a state land acquisition program and when construction on college campuses has been curtailed, this one is a head scratcher.

The state is poised to spend almost $7 million to add two feet of pavement to the shoulders on U.S. 41 east of State Road 29 all the way to the Dade County line.

Head scratching might progress to eye gouging if one focuses on a stated benefit of the project, better bicycle lanes.

Spending millions to make a remote stretch of U.S. 41 more bicycle friendly doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s not like green-conscious commuters are cycling to work between Naples and Miami. The main beneficiaries would be hard-core recreational cyclists who might undertake a sightseeing trip through the Big Cypress.

More pedal power to them, but that’s hardly a priority, given the fiscal realities of the moment.

But there’s much more to the project than enhanced bicycle safety, notes Joe Bonness, chairman of the Pathways Advisory Committee for the Collier County Metropolitan Planning Organization.

There is a significant improvement in vehicle safety that comes from widening the shoulders, said Bonness, who is also CEO of Better Roads Inc.

Grass grows against the edge of the pavement, trapping dirt that eventually raises the ground above the surface of the road. That causes water to pool at the edge of the pavement and soak into the ground underneath, softening it.

That soft ground allows tires to wear a rut in the pavement near the outside edge. Water collects there during heavy rains and vehicles hitting those puddles lose traction putting them at risk of hydroplaning, Bonness explained.

“If you can chase the water off four to six feet (from the travel lane) you don’t have that problem, Bonness said.

The bulk of the project costs will be replacing guardrails along the 32-mile stretch, an act of routine maintenance required since the posts supporting the current guardrails are old and prone to deterioration.

So even though the Pathways Advisory Committee reviewed the project and gave it its endorsement because of the potential benefit to cyclists, “It’s more of a safety factor for the car-traveling public,” Bonness said.

Better Roads may submit a bid for the job but Bonness sees no conflict in voting in favor of the expenditure.

Paving a shoulder, as opposed to a whole road, is a specialty job that will probably be handled by someone out of Miami, he said. “You’re not out there with your big equipment. Typically, we don’t get those jobs. It’s a long way out there,” he said.

If he was looking to generate business for himself, he probably would have voted against the project, he said. “Being a road builder, I’d probably rather see them spend the money on something closer to town,” Bonness said.

By definition, having someone employed in the paving industry on the pathways committee will lead to perceived conflicts, Bonness pointed out, arguing that a professional’s insights on the committee are valuable.

If you accept the case that the overall project has merit beyond the benefit to bicyclists, there’s still an aspect that will drive fiscal minimalists crazy.

Included in the price is $210,000 for an environmental study.

Bear in mind, the guardrails will be replaced where they stand today. The extra pavement for the shoulders will fill in the unpaved gap between the edge of the current shoulder and the guardrail. No new right of way is needed. Nothing is extending into virgin ground.

FDOT spokeswoman Cindy Clemmons offers this explanation: “On the U.S. 41 project we are doing the $210,000 environmental study because of the historical and cultural significance of the area. This section of U.S. 41 along with the adjacent canal are historically significant as well as the numerous bridges along the length of the project due to their age being over 50 years old.

“We have to document how the proposed improvements could potentially have an adverse effect on the area, or how it may not, depending on the type of improvements being proposed. We also have to determine if there are any significant cultural resources along the project, and if we are impacting them even if they are within our right-of-way.”

The potential history and culture in the two feet of unpaved shoulder between the guardrail and the pavement east of State Road 29 merits $210,000?

I’m still scratching my head.

Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten

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