LABELLE – Separate northbound and southbound bridges are planned over the Caloosahatchee River at LaBelle.
Plans by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to replace the bridge over the Caloosahatchee River at LaBelle were discussed at a joint meeting of the Hendry County Board of Commissioners and the LaBelle City Commission on July 11.
No public comments were allowed during the meeting at the LaBelle Civic Center. A public meeting will be planned later this year. Right-of-way acquisition will begin in early 2026 with $159.6 million in FDOT construction funds budgeted for July 2029.
FDOT District Consultant Project Management Engineer Benjamin Clayton said the project will make SR 29 a divided highway north of the bridge to Whidden Road. Three roundabouts are planned along that stretch to allow access to side roads.
A roundabout is also planned on the south side of the bridge at LaBelle. A roundabout is a circular intersection in which road traffic is permitted to flow in one direction around a central island.
Clayton said the existing bridge over the Caloosahatchee River is about 70 years old and needs to be replaced. The old bridge has already had numerous structural repairs as well as repairs to the draw bridge. He said the first new bridge would be built about 30 feet west of the existing bridge. The existing bridge would then be demolished and the second new bridge built in its place.
The new bridges will open for boat traffic, but will be taller than the existing bridge so should not have to open as frequently.
“Once you put a second bridge downtown, you lose the flavor of LaBelle,” said LaBelle City Commissioner Bobbie Spratt. “We love our identity. Sometimes I feel you guys come down from the state and think you can do whatever you want. I think you work for us.”
“My biggest concern is life and safety,” said County Commission Vice Chair Mitchell Wills. He said he is concerned about how long it takes an ambulance to reach homes north of the river.
FDOT also recommends a roundabout intersection where Main Street and Bridge meet at Cowboy Way.
Spratt said the roundabouts will be a challenge for people to get used to. She said she recently went through a roundabout in Immokalee. “I didn’t feel safe on it at all,” she said. “It was very confusing. I felt people didn’t slow down enough.”
County Commission Chair Emma Bryd said some roundabouts she has seen are too small for the traffic. “I never liked roundabouts,” she said. “We’ll have to get used to it.”
Wills said he is concerned about the school buses that travel Cowboy Way and the heavy truck traffic from Immokalee certain times of the year.
Clayton said the roundabout planned at Cowboy Way is larger than the roundabouts in Immokalee and Lee County the commissioners referenced.
Another change proposed it just a change in designation. Currently, just south of Cowboy Way, SR 29 veers left on Main Street. Drivers then have to turn right on State Road 80 and left on Bridge Street to continue on SR 29 over the bridge.
Wills said for decades truck traffic came north on SR 29 and continued on Bridge Street without the need to make any turns on SR 80. “That’s always been the truck route,” he said. “Previously, it was a straight shot through town.” Routing the trucks onto Main Street and then to SR 80 creates congestion at the main intersection, he pointed out. When there are multiple trucks waiting to turn left, it creates a traffic problem.
“Why was that changed?” asked Commissioner Karson Turner.
“GPS is taking people that way,” replied Spratt. “If we designate Bridge Street as SR 29, GPS will send them that way.”
“The bottleneck needs to be outside of town,” agreed Wills. “Right now, our citizens can’t get anywhere.”
“I don’t like Bridge Street as a truck route,” said City Commissioner Jackie Ratica. She asked if there was any way to use State Road 80.
Clayton said FDOT has agreed to look at the option for a truck route that would not go through LaBelle.
Wills said just changing the designation so the GPS keeps the northbound traffic on Bridge Street it would help for now.
LaBelle Mayor Julie Wilkins said FDOT will make improvements to both Main Street and Bridge Street as part of the project.
Commissioners asked FDOT to consider traffic lights at the intersection of Hall Street and SR 80 and at MLK Boulevbard and SR 80.
Turner said the traffic lights should be cantilever traffic poles with an extension arm rather than traffic lights on a cable between two poles. He said the nicer cities in Florida have the poles with the extension arms. Commissioner Ramon Iglesias said lights on cables are more likely to go down in a storm. Using a cantilever traffic pole with an extension arms means “one less traffic light sitting on the ground after a hurricane,” he said.
The FDOT plan proposes widening the sidewalks on Bridge Street and getting rid of the center turn lane. Wills argued for keeping the center lane on Bridge Street. “A lot of the time, you’ve got to get into that lane just to get into the traffic,” he explained.
Byrd supporting improving the drainage on Bridge Street but leaving the center lane,
“When they narrow the lanes, everybody slows down,” said City Commissioner Hugo Vargas. He said eliminating the “suicide lane” on Bridge Street would slow the traffic. “If you see a big open sight line, the impulse is to step on the gas.” He noted wider sidewalks would go along with the idea of making downtown LaBelle a walking district.
Spratt suggested lowering the speed limit.
“Taking the center lane out, you are going to slow it down,” said Wills. “But you’re going to have difficulty getting in and out.”