Positive response for proposed I-75 bypass plan

Sunday, March 23, 2003

By JOHN HENDERSON, jfhenderson@naplesnews.com

A proposed Interstate 75 bypass that would loop around Immokalee has the support of local officials who say it could be a boon for economic development and put the town on the map.

It is also touted as a way to reduce traffic on I-75 in Naples, south Lee County and Fort Myers.

Some environmentalists like the idea. Others have concerns. The toll road would slice through an area set aside for protecting Florida panthers.

Collier County Commissioner Frank Halas has been showing officials a map he has drawn of his vision of the new bypass, which he wants as a limited-access road.

He is getting mostly positive responses.

Click on the image above for a full size version of the graphic.

Halas said the road likely would have to be a toll road because there is no money for it in road-building programs.

The bypass Halas envisions would track the existing two-lane state roads 29 and 82. The only new segment of highway would loop around the east side of Immokalee Regional Airport.

To create the new highway, the two-lane S.R. 29 and S.R. 82 would become four lanes. At the south end, the bypass toll road would begin at the I-75 and S.R. 29 junction. Its northernmost point is in Fort Myers at the exit that takes traffic onto Martin Luther King Boulevard (S.R. 82).

One exit would allow drivers to get off at Southwest Florida International Airport's new terminal. Halas said the bypass would be an excellent way for people traveling here from the east coast to get to the airport faster. He said every driver using the bypass is one less traveling I-75 through Naples, south Lee and south Fort Myers.

"I want to do this in a positive manner and get together a huge coalition of people,'' Halas said. "We can put everyone's ideas together."

Collier Commissioner Jim Coletta supports the bypass. He said making it a toll road could significantly speed up the project.

"If it's not a toll road it could be 25 years off. We'd like to move this on fast track and maybe see it in eight years, maybe 10," Coletta said.

Raymond Holland, president of the Immokalee Chamber of Commerce, said the bypass would help bring in new business to the Immokalee airport and benefit the proposed new Ave Maria University. Halas envisions an exit that would provide access to the university as well.

Holland was upbeat about the proposal.

"To me, it's vital for the success of Immokalee. It would be great. It would take a bunch of traffic off of 75 in Naples and Fort Myers and provide transportation out of Immokalee for products either going back and forth (from Immokalee) to Miami or up the interstate to Tampa."

Holland said the new highway would be alluring to companies that are considering locating in the industrial park at Immokalee airport.

"Immokalee is the poorest area in Collier County, and one of the poorest areas in Florida. If we have a good road system into our industrial park, it would be a lot easier to attract people to it. It's the old saying, 'Build a road and they'll come.'"

He said interstate access to the airport and industrial park could also lure new companies there.

"If we get the interstate through here, the next thing that could happen is an expansion of the airport," he said.

He said companies like FedEx Corp. or UPS might want to locate a corporate office at the airport to serve its Caribbean base.

Fred Thomas, past executive director of the Collier County Housing Authority, said the new road would make Immokalee an interstate town, and forever change it for the better.

"I think it's tremendous," he said of the bypass. "When you have an interstate town, there will be hotels on the edge of town and easy access for our industrial parks there."

Thomas envisions an exit off County Road 846.

"That is the road that goes out by the airport, and you've got an industrial park trade zone,'' Thomas said. "That puts us right on the interstate as it relates to our economic development, industrial development, and as it relates to our retail development."

Floyd Crews, an Immokalee fire commissioner who has lived in Immokalee since 1969, had nothing but positive comments about the bypass.

"I think it could be one of best things to happen to Immokalee to put us on the map. It would make this airport over here a viable airport," Crews said.

Crews said the two-lane S.R. 82 is a dangerous highway now that needs to be widened anyway.

"State Road 82 is in dire need of being four-laned," Crews said. "It (the new bypass) would make this (Seminole Indian) casino over here easier to get to. More money would come into Immokalee. It would also give Collier County a good bit more money."

Environmentalists are split about the idea.

Layne Hamilton, manager of the Florida Panther and 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge, said there is panther habitat on both sides of S.R. 29 south of Immokalee.

She said the bypass project might provide a chance to create more panther crossings.

"Actually, we find that when there is a major rehabilitation of a road, that gives us opportunity to put in additional wildlife crossing features, so it actually protects wildlife," she said. "A good example is Alligator Alley. When it was widened, we pretty much eliminated panther deaths on that."

She said there are several wildlife crossings, which are underpasses, along S.R. 29 north of the interstate.

"Most people have no idea they are going over them. It involves an underpass and some sort of barrier such as a fence that kind of guides the animals to it and prevents them from getting on the highway," Hamilton said.

Nancy Payton, Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation, said the road could provide an opportunity to install additional protections for the panther habitat.

Payton met with Halas and Collier County Transportation Administrator Norm Feder on Friday to discuss the project.

Payton said she supports the new bypass because it could diminish the need for the proposed extension of Collier Boulevard, otherwise known as County Road 951, from Collier up into Lee County. She said the bypass would lessen traffic on I-75 through Naples, and this reduction of traffic could be used as an argument not to extend 951 into Lee County.

Payton and other environmentalists are concerned that the 951 extension could harm environmentally sensitive lands and open up that area of south Lee County to new development.

Payton said this type of a bypass was discussed several years ago. But at that time there was no proposal on the table to possibly have a new toll road authority as is the case today.

"The time is right," she said. "Yes, I see some benefits to the bypass."

Payton said she would like the new bypass to remain a limited-access highway, with a couple of exits in Collier County.

Officials at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida are concerned that the bypass would spur growth.

Nicole Ryan, environmental policy manager for the organization, said there are concerns the highway would open that area to development. Though it is touted as a "limited-access" road, others that were promoted this way turned out eventually to have many exits, she said.

Halas said the county's growth plan wouldn't allow uncontrolled growth to result from the new road: "We feel we have got everything in place and we'll be able to control growth."

Even so, there is concern.

"We do have concerns about panthers (in the area), and about how limited the (bypass) access could be, because in many case bypasses and roads that go through natural areas often spur additional development," Ryan said. "Our concern is: Is that an appropriate place for an expansion of a road? A lot of panthers travel in that area."

She said some are saying that this new highway could be built instead of extending 951.

"One reason the road is being proposed is to be in lieu of extending 951. Of course, we are very concerned and opposed to an extension of 951. We don't yet see the justification for having this (bypass) road and how it would substitute for 951. We are very concerned about both roads and want to investigate further."

The Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization on Friday decided that a study of this bypass corridor should be included in the ongoing study of the extension of 951.

Halas told Lee County officials at a joint meeting Friday of the Lee-Collier MPOs that the bypass would veer 30 percent of the traffic headed from Miami to the Fort Myers area away from the interstate in Naples.

Meg Judge, founding chairwoman of the board of the Estero Chamber of Commerce, recently e-mailed Halas to express her interest in the bypass project. She said the idea of the new bypass is worth investigating. She said any new north-south corridor like this could help relieve traffic on I-75 headed through the Estero area.

"It certainly is worth investigating. I know Lee County has included it (the bypass) in their study of 951,'' Judge said. "We really need north-south arterial roads. Our major focus now is getting them west of 75."

Some see the bypass as a benefit for Ave Maria University when it is built between Golden Gate Estates and Immokalee.

"I certainly like the concept," University President Nicholas J. Healy Jr. said. "The way it is described to me is that it would provide much more direct access to the Fort Myers (international) airport, which would obviously be quite attractive."

He said the bypass could make it faster for people visiting the university to get there.

"Anything that gives us direct access to the airport or over to Miami could be helpful,'' he said. "We do expect a number of students who would be coming from the Miami area, and also Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach."

One day, the university would like to build a sports stadium, and the bypass could allow access to that, he said.

"We're not talking about anything that would represent a national sports team for probably 15 years," Healy said.