Everyone keeps talking about growth, growth, growth in SWFL. And if you believe the projections, the population could increase by as much as 150,000 new residents in Collier County alone in the next 10 years. Where will they live? Where will they work? How will they get from one place to another, given the traffic problems the region faces?
Most of the development will occur east of US 41 toward Immokalee and into Hendry County. Protecting the assets of the agricultural community, the environment and the citizens who already live there will require vision and a dedication to smart and guided growth. It will require critical input from residents, landowners, the business community and public officials who are willing to listen and more importantly, learn; and it will also require significant collaboration with environmental advocates.
One of the biggest challenges, and perhaps the biggest opportunity, may lie in what to do with State Road 29. SR 29 starts near Palmdale and runs south through LaBelle, Felda, Immokalee, Ave Maria, across I-75, and dead ends in Everglades City. While it may seem hard to believe, the SR 29 link between Immokalee and Everglades City was completed in the 1920s around the same time the Tamiami Trail was being constructed.
Today, SR 29 is a dangerous two-lane road that cuts right through the burgeoning interior of rural Southwest Florida. Trucks heavily travel the road, some serving local operations and others simply using SR 29 as an alternative route to get to I-75 toward Miami and Fort Lauderdale. One only has to read or hear the news of weekly accidents to understand why SR 29 is considered one of the most dangerous roads in Florida.
The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) along with some community leaders have been looking at a potential bypass option around Immokalee since 2007. FDOT will be undertaking a mobility study of the downtown in 2017. The department has also budgeted $18 million for design and environmental studies in 2018. While these efforts are admirable, they only address a small portion of the much larger problem. The question is: isn’t there a better option that will benefit the rural interior of SWFL, which is almost wholly comprised by State House District 80?
As a resident and a candidate for Florida State Representative for District 80, I believe the State Legislature, FDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, and Congress, through Congressman Diaz-Balart, should look at the potential benefits for turning SR 29 into an I-75 bypass around Naples, as well as how the federal and state governments could jointly fund it. By taking SR 29 north from I-75 and turning it into a four-lane highway, we can connect it with either State Road 80 or 82, both of which connect with I-75 north of the RSW Airport.
Such an interstate bypass has the potential for providing an economic boost to East Collier County, including Immokalee and Ave Maria, in addition to Felda and LaBelle in Hendry County. It will also significantly reduce the number of fatalities on SR 29 and SR 80 or 82. And for the residents of coastal Collier County, it will relieve the growing traffic congestion the community faces year round, especially in the high season months. Tourists to the Naples area will also benefit by having an easier time getting in and out of the city if traffic near the coast is reduced.
FDOT already has a plan underway to expand SR 82 to four lanes. Adding two additional lanes to SR 29, putting in place a proper bypass around Immokalee and connecting SR-29 to I-75 at Alligator Alley could provide much needed relief for what has longed plagued the entire rural and coastal areas…traffic, lack of economic opportunity, and stymied growth.
No question a project this size must assure that the needs of the communities involved are met and the environment is protected. But, if handled with a guiding hand that provides a win-win for all, it’s a vision worth considering. It will take leaders in Tallahassee who have the best interests of the residents of SWFL at heart and who have a vision to make this region an even better place to live, work, and play.
Joe Davidow is an attorney in Naples and is running for State Representative, District 80.