HAINES CITY – Just how significant a road that runs for less than two miles is, really isn’t the central question, said Ed Smith.
The bigger question, he added, is the people who so very much want to use that roadway. That’s the main reason why Smith, a Polk County commissioner, is so strongly backing construction of the Poinciana Parkway, a new toll road that mostly runs through Osceola County, is being designed by Osceola officials, and will be maintained and operated by the Osceola County Expressway Authority.
“Only 1.9 miles of that (highway) is in Polk County,” Smith said. But he was quick to add, “So we’re a player in this. We had a choice going into this. We said, ‘You build your section, we’ll build ours.’ ”
What Smith and his fellow Polk County commissioners recognized is the critical this proposed highway is for residents of Poinciana, said Keith Laytham, the president of Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, a civic group working to improve the community.
“The Poinciana Parkway idea has been around for a long time, and it’s very important to the community,” Laytham said.
Laytham lives in Solivita, the development on the Polk County side of Poinciana, and he’s gotten to know Smith through his efforts to lobby commissioners in both counties to support the Poinciana Parkway. Poinciana’s 10 villages are divided between Osceola and Polk counties.
“Ed and I have gotten together on occasion to discuss the Poinciana Parkway,” said Laytham, as the two men shared lunch at La Fiesta Mexicana, a restaurant in downtown Haines City.
“Both of us recognize the importance of the Poinciana Parkway,” Smith said. “It’s been on the radar for 20 years.”
The parkway — expected to break ground by November or sometime in the winter –would be a toll road. It first got proposed by AV Homes, the main builder in Poinciana, back in 2004. The developer had hoped to get it constructed to provide easier access for local residents to reach the Internet 4 exit near ChampionsGate.
Currently the main roadways in Poinciana, like Pleasant Hill Road and Poinciana Boulevard, can get heavily congested during the morning and evening rush hour traffic, and an accident and tie up either road for hours.
AV Homes hit a roadblock because the road needed to cut through the environmentally protected Reedy Creek swamp, so the state ordered that a bridge be built that carries the highway over the wetlands area. That inflated the cost of the project from $40 million to $170 million, and AV Homes was unable to cover that expense and turned to the two county governments to build it as a public roadway. The counties agreed.
Once the road has been completed, it will be maintained by the Osceola County Expressway Authority, which will collect the fees generated from the tolls and use that money for the roadway’s long-term maintenance.
But if this mainly sounds like an Osceola County highway, Smith said he and his fellow Polk commissioners certainly don’t view it that way.
Even though less than two miles of the road would be in Polk County, Smith said Polk commissioners are firmly committed to funding their section of the Poinciana Parkway.
“Polk County is on the hook for $3 million,” Smith said. “We have that much money from impact fees.”
Those are fees imposed on the construction of new homes. The money generated from the fees cover infrastructure needs that residential housing growth puts pressure on, including local roads. Both the Polk and Osceola County sides of Poinciana grew rapidly in the past decade, with homes being built there every 90 days.
Smith said the main reason he decided to support the project is that more than 31,000 people live on the Polk County side of Poinciana – while another 51,000 live on the Osceola County side – and Poinciana-Polk, although an unincorporated area, has more residents than nearby cities like Haines City, where the population is less than 20,000.
“These people are Polk County taxpayers, and they are Polk County citizens,” Smith said. “Polk County has 17 different municipalities, but some of those municipalities are very small. Where I live in Lake Alfred, we’re just over 5,000 people.”
Smith said Polk is taking something of a hands-off approach to the construction work, allowing Osceola County’s road engineers to do the designs, rather than have each county hire a separate firm to do this kind of planning work.
“We said we’d give the money for our side to Osceola County and let their engineers build it,” Smith said.
As Smith noted, he’s not a newcomer to this concept. Laytham said Smith was lobbying for this long before the counties agreed to make it a public road.
“What Ed did was he represented the entire county, and when it became abundantly clear what the people wanted was the Poinciana Parkway, he acted,” Laytham said.
“I could see the people were getting frustrated about it,” Smith said. “So I went to my office and put together the Poinciana Parkway Working Group. We had about 33 people at our first meeting.”
The group continues to meet, and will hold its next session on Wednesday, Aug. 29 at 2 p.m. at the Polk County Administration Building in Bartow, on the fourth floor.
“We’ll bring everyone up to date on how the last meeting went, and then we bring them up to date on the project itself,” Smith said.
“These meetings are open to the public,” Laytham added.
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