GOLDEN GATE ESTATES — A Collier County road project facing ongoing resistance from state and federal reviewers and environmental groups could lose its spot on the county's list of funded priorities.
For years, the proposed Interstate 75 interchange at Everglades Boulevard has pitted rural residents who want better access and a quicker emergency escape route against environmental advocates who worry that it would push development into habitat for endangered species like the Florida panther and wood stork.
Tensions over the project remain high despite a two-year-long environmental effects study and a protracted series of go-arounds between Collier County officials and the Florida Department of Transportation about whether the interchange is justified.
A push by environmental advocates to either eliminate the project from funding or push it to the bottom of the priorities list is set to come to a head at a Dec. 11 meeting of Collier County commissioners.
The matter is set to come up again at a Dec. 14 meeting of the Collier County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the board of county and city elected officials that is creating a new long-term transportation plan through 2035 that now has the interchange ranked No. 6.
"Our goal is just to get this project neutralized," Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said.
Commissioner Tom Henning suggested that money spent pursuing the interchange might deliver a "bigger bang for the buck" if spent on another project closer to fruition.
Commissioner Donna Fiala said she favored looking for compromises that would involve other routes to get rural residents to more urban stretches of Interstate 75.
Payton said environmental groups are hopeful the tide could be turning their way, in part because the interchange's main champion on the County Commission lost his seat in the August primary.
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Commissioner Jim Coletta, the MPO chairman who lost to Golden Gate Estates activist Tim Nance, urged the MPO at its November meeting to "keep your options open" on the interchange.
"There are ways to make this work for everyone so it will become a reality," Coletta said.
Later, Coletta asked to be kept in the loop on the interchange, even after he is out of office: "I plan to work very closely with the new commissioner to keep this thing on track," he said.
For his part, Nance said he doesn't "fully know yet" how he will come down on the interchange ranking. He said the debate should only be about when it will be built, not whether it should be built at all.
"It needs to stay well within sight of all our planning," Nance said.
He has opposed plans to put an interchange at Everglades Boulevard because of the impact it would have on the Estates neighborhood along the approach to it, but he supports putting it farther east, such as at the proposed new town of Big Cypress.
Environmental groups point to opposition from state and federal review agencies as evidence that pursuing any interchange is unrealistic and a waste of money.
In July, the Florida Department of Transportation wrote to the county to notify it that the interchange fails on five of the eight policy points the Federal Highway Administration required to justify an interchange.
Calling the issues "major" and "significant," the DOT lists traffic increases on Interstate 75, use of the interstate for short-distance travel contrary to state and federal policies, a lack of need for the interchange, a failure to consider alternatives and environmental constraints.
In September, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Department of Interior wrote letters to the DOT questioning the modeling assumptions a consultant used to come to the conclusion that a new interchange would do little to spur development in eastern Collier County.
For one, the model uses a horizon year of 2039, leaving open the question of what sort of development might happen in the decades after that, the agencies said.
"Obviously, this could be very significant to wildlife populations," Conservation Commission conservation planning director Scott Sanders wrote.