While the major hang-up in the development of the proposed 45-mile Central Polk Parkway — which would link the existing Polk Parkway with Interstate 4 via a roundabout route skirting Lake Wales and other east Polk communities — is its whopping $1.2 billion cost, a tiny lizard could also be a problem.
The sand skank, a little known reptile, could add another $59 million to the already sky-high cost, Florida Department of Transportation engineers and planners told the parkway’s advocacy group Friday.
Gwen Pipkin, the project development engineer in charge of the massive project, told the assembled city and county representatives that the Department is in a battle with both the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the sand skank. Pipkin said the project still on the drawing board is hung up over environmental permits that the two federal agencies say they won’t issue until it is determined whether the reptile is lurking in the proposed alignment of the eight sections of roadway planned to link the Polk Parkway with I-4.
“We’ve planned for $2.6 million to find out if the skank is there or not and to mitigate if it is,” Pipkin said Friday, “But they are saying that if it is, we will have to spend another $59 million to offset that loss.”
That’s not the only hold-up on the project, according to FDOT District Secretary Billy Hattaway.
“It’s a funding issue,” he told the group that crowded the Bartow Airport’s meeting room. “There are no funds allocated beyond preliminary engineering, which will basically determine the route and let us know how much right-of-way we’ll need to build it.”
Hattaway told the advocacy group organized by state Rep. John Wood of Winter Haven that the study had determined the basic route from the existing Polk Parkway to State Road 60, then east to skirt around Lake Wales and proceed northeast of the U.S. 27 corridor to link to I-4 between U.S. 27 and County Road 54.
He also said the project would have to be funded as a toll road, but first, it had to be determined whether tolls could generate enough to pay for it. Pipkin also told the group the bulk of the road studies so far had been done with state funds and to meet state road standards, but to get federal funds, additional work would have to be done, as is ongoing for the interchange with I-4.
“Without permits, there’s nothing else we can do,” she added. “But we’re continuing our discussions with the federal agencies to see what we can do to resolve the permitting issue.”
Meanwhile, Hattaway said the advocacy group endorsing the project as an economic development booster could pursue priority status with the county’s Transportation Planning Organization.
“Until it becomes a TPO priority, we’re not including any more funding in our five-year work program,” he added.
TPO Director Tom Deardorff said the parkway project was included in the organization’s long-range plan, but not the short-term. He added the TPO could potentially add key segments to its priority list, but it would have to displace other projects to do so.
County Commissioner George Lindsey asked Hattaway if the project could be built in stages and then later tolled.
“No, we can’t go back and make a road that’s been opened a toll road,” said Hattaway. “It needs to be a toll facility from the beginning.”
For planning purposes, the project is divided into eight sections, five of which have reached the 30 percent stage. The remaining three sections are funded to reach that level this year, according to the project website. Pipkin said the preliminary design is costing $38 million.
Dave Carter, a Winter Haven engineer who chairs the advocacy group, suggested the members of the committee, mostly municipal elected officials and employees, should lobby the TPO to move the project forward.
“We all need to let the TPO know we want to make sure they have this project front and center on their priority list,” he said.
A majority of the 75 people at the meeting appeared to be property owners whose land may be affected by the project. Hattaway told them at the outset that the meeting was not to address their individual concerns, but merely to update the advocacy group on the project to date.
He did assure them that nothing beyond planning would occur within five years.
Pipkin did advise the group that an alternatives workshop will be held later this year for the segment of the proposed highway that links to I-4. “But that’s only for that segment,” she added.
Following the presentations and project discussion, Bartow Mayor James Clements asked when the group would reconvene, but no date was set. Hattaway said his office would contact Wood and Carter when another meeting was warranted.
“I’ll let you know if things change,” he said. “And then another meeting could be arranged.”