POINCIANA – In a move that could jump start the construction of a new toll road designed to help residents move in and out of traffic-congested Poinciana more quickly, Osceola County commissioners have endorsed a plan to make the Poinciana Parkway a public rather than private roadway, and to allow it to be supervised by the Osceola County Expressway Authority.
It happened during a meeting on Monday, when the commissioners endorsed the idea of taking over the project from Avatar Properties, the main developer in Poinciana. Avatar was unable to move forward on the project after 2008, when the crash in the housing market and the subsequent credit crunch made it next to impossible to secure the funding needed to get it built.
“Our county commission approved the agreement to move the Poinciana Parkway forward,” said County Commission Brandon Arrington, whose district includes Poinciana.
But the project probably would not have moved forward without the strong support given to the Poinciana Parkway by government leaders in Polk County, added Atlee Mercer, the chairman of the Osceola County Expressway Authority.
“The people in Poinciana want this road built, and Avatar has already invested $47 million it in,” Mercer said. “There’s an increased interest in getting this road built, and in particular there has been an increased interest in Polk County in getting it built.”
Poinciana’s 10 villages now cut across Polk and Osceola counties, but the only major roadways in the community are Pleasant Hill Road and Poinciana Boulevard. Avatar envisioned the Poinciana Parkway as a new highway that would start at Marigold Avenue, and connect residents to County Road 54 in Davenport, close to the exit for Interstate 4 by ChampionsGate.
The tolls collected on it would be used to finance the roadway’s long term maintenance costs.
Getting the support from commissioners in both counties, Mercer said, “has changed the dynamic of this. It’s no longer, ‘Oh, it’s Avatar’s fault.’ Now it’s ‘Let’s get the parkway built.”
As a result, he said, the roadway is likely to be completed and fully operational by early 2015.
“I wanted to give a Christmas present to Poinciana in 2014,” Mercer said, “and it looks like that is going to happen.”
Avatar had proposed the Poinciana Parkway in 2006. But the original price tag, about $40 million, ballooned out of control as Avatar faced challenges building the road through the Reedy Creek preserve, which is an environmentally protected area. Instead, Avatar was told the firm would need to build a four mile bridge over the preserve to keep it from being disturbed by the construction. That inflated the potential cost of the road to well beyond $170 million.
Instead, Avatar worked out a new agreement with commissioners in Osceola and Polk counties, and one of the most significant aspects of the deal is that the Poinciana Parkway will no longer be a private road, but a public road owned by the two counties. Mercer said bad commutes on both sides of Poinciana helped put pressure on municipal leaders to move this project forward.
“I’m not surprised about Polk County’s reaction,” Mercer said. “Somehow Polk County residents of Poinciana got to their commissioners and said, you have to fix their commute.”
Over the next year, Osceola County will do a new toll study that offers projections on what the tolls collected from this new roadway are likely to be over the next 20 years. That’s going to help Osceola County leaders secure bonds that will be used to finance the project.
And while Osceola County would obtain ownership of the parkway, the highway would be handed over to the Osceola County Expressway Authority to operate. The authority was created in 2010 to allow Osceola County to have its own agency to oversee road construction in the future. Previously, Osceola was under the supervision of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority.
Mercer said it is actually being billed as a bridge project, not a roadway project, because of the bridge being constructed over the Reedy Creek preserve.
“Think of this project as a bridge project, instead,” he said.
Keith Laytham, president of Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, said residents have been lobbying so hard for this project because it will cut down on their commute times to work – and will save them time and money.
“With gas going up to $4 a gallon, this is badly needed,” he said.
Laytham said despite the past delays, he now fully expects this project to move forward.
“Avatar as their part of the agreement, will meet with the people to start the toll study,” Laytham said. “The toll study will look at what the toll projections will be for the toll and the road. Then the county will make a decision as to whether they can get municipal bond funding for the entire project or part of the project. The road will be started no later than 2013 and completed no later than May 2015. We have a signed agreement between Avatar and Osceola County that has firm dates for starting and ending it — no ifs, ands or butts about it. We’re at the races and the gate has opened. The bell has rung and the gate has opened.”
And while welcoming in the construction jobs that this project will bring to Poinciana, Laytham said it means something more in the long run.
“It’s a number of jobs to build the road, obviously, but more importantly — and this is a key point — Poinciana is a bedroom community, and in order for a bedroom community to survive, people living in that community must have access to jobs elsewhere. And without the roads, people in the community don’t have access to jobs.”
Once the parkway gets built, “This will make it much, much easier for Poinciana residents to make it easier to go to places where jobs are available.”
Mercer said what likely pushed this project forward was the realization that this project was needed years ago, before Poinciana underwent a major growth spurt.
“Monday was the validation of about 10 years of work,” Mercer said. “The Poinciana Parkway was an obligation of Avatar to get it built for them to be able to continue to grow the community.”
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