POINCIANA – Until the groundbreaking begins this fall on the Poinciana Parkway project, there are still some critical decisions that need to be made, and very few of them, Keith Laytham noted, may be more important that a dirt road that heads north from Cypress Parkway between Solivita West and the Solivita Main Gate.
“What we don’t want,” Laytham said, “is another Pleasant Hill Road situation.”
Laytham is the president of Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, a civic group working to improve the community, which strongly supports the construction of the Poinciana Parkway, a toll road intended to create easier access in and out of the community of 84,000 residents.
Laytham wants Poinciana residents to start lobbying Osceola County commissioners to support using Rhododendron Road – a dirt road that doesn’t serve much purpose for the community at the moment – as part of the Poinciana Parkway.
Doing that would increase the overall cost of this project, he noted – but using Rhododendron could also mean a significant quality of life improvement for Poinciana residents once the parkway project has been completed.
“It’s a critical issue,” he said.
The reason is that the original plan for the Poinciana Parkway called for it to connect to a bridge over the Reedy Creek swamp by way of Marigold Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Poinciana.
Taking the Poinciana Parkway through here means it would travel through residential neighborhoods that could mean additional traffic congestion, Laytham said.
“Marigold goes from Cypress Parkway up north into Villages 1 and 2, and then dead ends in the north end of Poinciana,” Laytham said. “The plan for the Poinciana Parkway is it extends over Reedy Creek swamp into Polk County, which would connect to (U.S.) 17/92.”
The problem with Marigold, he added, is it’s a local road surrounded by housing developments and two schools between Cypress Parkway and the proposed Poinciana Parkway Bridge over Reedy Creek.
“In other words, with additional traffic it could become much like Pleasant Hill at rush hour, with traffic stopped behind school buses and kids crossing the road to get to school,” Laytham said. “If you go up Marigold, there’s a whole bunch of intersections and two schools that would slow things down considerably.”
But there’s another option: building on Rhododendron, which is more expensive – but which Laytham thinks could mark the difference, in the long run, between the future success or failure of the Poinciana Parkway.
“It’s a dirt road that goes north off Cypress Parkway,” Laytham said. “Right now it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s just a dirt road that goes up to the recycling plant.”
It’s on property owned by AV Homes, the main builder in Poinciana, and Laytham said building on Rhododendron would take them “right up to that (Reedy Creek) bridge so the traffic can go there without having to go up Marigold. The proposal was, as part of this parkway project, let’s build on Rhododendron Road as a two or four lane road to go up Cypress Parkway to the bridge so everyone won’t have to go through all these neighborhoods and the schools.”
The challenge, he said, is this option raises the overall price tag of a project that has already been significantly delayed because of its cost.
AV Homes proposed building it back in 2004, but the original price tag of $40 million skyrocketed past $170 million when the state ordered the builder to construct a bridge for the highway to go over, so this road wouldn’t disturb the environmentally protected Reedy Creek swamp.
AV Homes was unable to finance that kind of cost, so the builder turned to Osceola County, asking commissioners to take over the project and make it a public road. Osceola agreed, and since the highway would also extend for a few miles into Polk County, Polk commissioners came on board as well.
“The latest agreement is we’re partnering with Osceola County on this,” said Tony Iorio, the vice president of development for AV Homes. “And we need another road out of here.”
As Laytham noted, additional funding is needed by Osceola County commissioners to pay for the Rhododendron section.
“Everybody would really like to do the four lane bridge with Rhododendron,” Laytham said. “With a four lane bridge, you’d get better traffic, and if there’s an accident, you can go around it. But obviously nothing is free, and the difference in the price tag is a two-lane bridge and two-lane roadway is $60.4 million, but if they want a four-lane bridge and two lane roadway on the Rhododendron route, it’s $91.8 million.”
State lawmakers have allocated $35 million in bond support for Osceola County road projects. Osceola County Commissioner Brandon Arrington said this funding was to help cover the bonds that the county would float to build the parkway.
“Those state budget dollars are our debt service dollars,” he said.
But they still have to decide if the Rhododendron option is worth the added cost, Laytham said.
“That’s exactly when they have to make a decision on,” he said. “What they did at the commission meeting two weeks ago was they said ‘Okay, we’re going to vote and sign the contract with Avatar (now AV Homes). We’re not going to commit ourselves until we know all the numbers.’ “
But the reality is, if Osceola commissioners do agree to finance the Rhododendron option, “In order for them to do it, they would have to take money out of other projects,” Laytham said.
In the meantime, the Osceola County Expressway Authority, which will operate the Poinciana Parkway as a toll road, will meet on Aug. 14 to send out the requests for proposals to contractors.
“Until they actually get the bids in, they don’t know what the costs are going to be,” Laytham said. “They’re asking the contractors to be creative.”
So Laytham wants Poinciana residents to contact Osceola commissioners and let them know they support the Rhododendron option.
“What is required is for the residents of Poinciana to contact the Osceola County commissioners to ask them to come up with the funding to support the Rhododendron solution,” he said. “We don’t need another Pleasant Hill. We need to ask the commissioners to come up with the funds to do the project right.”
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