POINCIANA — Jeffrey Jones admits that Osceola County tried hard, very hard, to get out the message that as unpleasant as tax hikes may be, if it can lead to a major improvement in a community’s quality of life, it would be worth it.
That was part of the county’s message last November, when Osceola County commissioners put a referendum on the ballot asking voters if they would approve a sales tax increase to fund 10 transportation projects, including the Poinciana Parkway, a proposed toll road designed to make it easier for Poinciana residents to get from their community to Interstate 4.
In a bad year for the economy, a tax hike turned out to be a tough sell, and 70 percent of Osceola County voters rejected the referendum. Now, as the county and Avatar, the main builder in Poinciana, look for ways to get the Poinciana Parkway back on track, Jones said another alternative may be to find another source of private funding, rather than more public money.
“Obviously without that sales tax, most of those projects are not going forward, and that was part of the message that was being put out when the tax was being discussed prior to the referendum,“ said Jones, Osceola County‘s strategic initiatives director. “There just isn’t any additional money, so they are going to be delayed until such times as there is a funding source for it.“
But if the county doesn’t have the funding now to invest in the parkway, Jones noted that the proposed highway would be a toll road, and that might give a private investor more incentive to work on this project.
“With the Poinciana Parkway, the plan is for it to be in part a toll facility, so there’s an opportunity for the public-private partnership for the county working with the Osceola Expressway Authority taking the project on,” Jones said.
The Osceola County Expressway Authority was created last year, when the state Legislature gave the county the ability to create its own expressway authority, separate from the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority. Now Osceola County is able to build new roads across the county, with the funding coming from tolls imposed on those roads.
Giving the county the ability to put tolls on the local roads, Jones said, gives Osceola commissioners the funding source it needs to make these projects happen — and can entice private businesses to get involved as well, he added.
“ It could be simply the private sector finding there is a potential to make a profit off of it and choosing to build it on their own,” he said. “All of those are currently being explored. It’s very much on the front burner to find a way to do that.”
That also means, Jones said, that Avatar wouldn’t have to be the only private developer working on this roadway.
“It’s not exclusively Avatar,” he said. “There could be other companies out there that are just interested in constructing and operating in a toll road. I’m trying to find out now. There’s a lot of examples around the country where that has occurred, and everything with roads is complicated. What the county is currently working on is what’s the best way to do this, what’s the one that’s going to work, what’s the way everyone can agree on in terms of how to finance it, and who is ending up collecting the tolls and how does it get distributed among the partners. It’s very much a business deal. We’re working very hard on that.”
The Poinciana Parkway has been on the drawing board for seven years. Avatar was required to get environmental permits first, because some of the land that this roadway would cut through is protected wetlands, and the developer needed to mitigate that by finding other land that could be preserved in its place.
But the projected cost of the toll road — which would get residents to the Interstate 4 exit by ChampionsGate, and bring them more quickly to Ronald Reagan Boulevard in Davenport — has gone up, slowing down the start date.
Nick Murdock, the chairman of the Poinciana Economic Development Alliance, said he expects this project will move forward in 2012, and said it’s critical to Poinciana’s future.
“I feel it’s extremely important,” he said. “Most people feel that way. It’s going to, number one, give people in Poinciana a way to get out of here so we’re not land locked. That’s a very specific value that is given to us. By taking the Poinciana Parkway, they can knock off at least 15 minutes of time as they go up to the Orlando-Disney area.
“The other thing it does,” Murdock added, “is give Avatar an opportunity to promote the parkway and sell more homes here, because people don’t have to go through Haines City to get out of here.”
That‘s true, he said, of developments like Solivita, on the Polk County side of Poinciana. Right now, the fastest way to get to I-4 from Solivita is to drive into neighboring Haines City, take it to U.S. 27, and then follow it north to the I-4 exit by Posner Park in Davenport. That’s close to a 30 minute drive.
“With all those ingredients added together, it’s a huge plus for the Poinciana community, and it takes the load and burden off the community,” Murdock said.
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