Collier County's lengthy push to get an Interstate 75 interchange built at Everglades Boulevard has reached the end of the road — for now.
County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to shelve plans for the interchange in rural eastern Collier County until at least 2021.
The project has been a top road priority for the county for years, putting the county at odds with environmental groups who opposed the project on the grounds that it would do far-reaching harm to habitat for the endangered Florida panther and other wildlife.
Commissioners voiced support, however, for a proposal to work out a deal with the Florida Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration to formalize permanent emergency access to I-75 from Everglades Boulevard.
Commissioner Tim Nance, whose district includes the massive Golden Gate Estates subdivision that would benefit most from a new interchange, said he planned to hold a Town Hall to explain the status of the project. A date has not been set.
"I think a lot of folks out there are going to be disappointed," he said.
Wednesday's vote comes on the heels of a letter Friday from the state Department of Transportation rejecting the county's bid to have the new interchange submitted to the Federal Highway Administration for review.
DOT District Secretary Billy Hattaway wrote the new interchange is not recommended "at this time" because transportation needs can be met on the existing road network.
Collier County had spent $1 million putting together an Interchange Justification Report to submit to the DOT, Community Development Administrator Nick Casalanguida told commissioners. He sought to put the best light on the rejection Wednesday.
"They're not saying, 'Don't come back,' " he said. "They're just saying it's not prudent at this time."
Even before the DOT letter, though, the project had stalled out in the face of a barrage of objections from transportation agencies and from state and federal environmental reviewers.
Backers of the interchange say it is needed to shorten trips into the county's urban area and to provide quicker emergency escape routes in the case of wildfires or hurricanes.
Commission Chairwoman Georgia Hiller endorsed a proposal by environmental groups to redirect $116 million budgeted for the interchange and the widening of Everglades Boulevard to other projects to improve traffic flows in Golden Gate Estates.
That could mean speeding up construction of bridges over canals and widening Golden Gate Boulevard from Everglades Boulevard to Desoto Boulevard to coincide with the 2015 widening from Wilson Boulevard to Everglades Boulevard.
Former Commissioner Jim Coletta, the interchange's chief proponent, was voted out of office in August. He had allies in commissioners Fred Coyle and Donna Fiala to create a majority vote in favor of the project. Fiala voted to stop pursuing the interchange Wednesday.
Nance, Coletta's successor, pledged to continue working to build a consensus with environmental groups about building the interchange, although not necessarily at Everglades, and reaching a deal on environmental mitigation.
"I think it's very clear that at some point in time, this interchange is going to be absolutely necessary," Nance said.