POINCIANA – Sometime in the winter, between November and next February, Poinciana is likely to hit a milestone when construction begins on a new highway that’s designed to make it easier and faster for residents to get in and out of the community.
It will also mark the start of a project that dates back to the 1990s, well before Poinciana experienced the massive residential growth spurt in the past decade and saw its population soar to 84,000.
But if Osceola and Polk counties do in fact move forward on the groundbreaking for the Poinciana Parkway, it could offer endless economic benefits to the community, said Keith Laytham, the president of the civic group Poinciana Residents for Smart Change.
“I think the key to the future of Poinciana is how do we provide transportation,” he said.
Doing that, said Tony Iorio, means finally getting the Poinciana Parkway built. Iorio is the vice president of development for AV Homes, the main builder in Poinciana, and the firm has been trying to get this toll road built since 2004. Even before that, two other developers were trying to do the same thing at least three decades ago.
Now, Iorio said, the project is finally looking set to become a reality.
“It’s most likely going to be a two-lane road,” he said. “We feel very positive about it. Pedal to the metal, everyone is moving forward on this. This is going to be a huge, huge plus for the community.”
It took a while for AV Homes to get to this starting gate, though, Iorio added.
Poinciana is made up of 10 villages that cut across Osceola and Polk counties. The rapid growth in the past decade gave Poinciana a larger population than some neighboring cities, but the main roadways in and out of the community are Pleasant Hill Road and Poinciana Boulevard – which can get very crowded and congested during rush hour traffic in the morning and afternoons.
Although AV Homes, previously known as Avatar, began working on getting the toll road built eight years ago, the project dates back at least a decade before that, Iorio said, when two other developers – Levitt Homes and the Jack Parker Group – started the permitting process for the parkway.
“Originally there were lands on the west side of Poinciana, not owned by Avatar, and those two developers began looking for an alternate route out of Poinciana back in the 1990s,” Iorio said. “They were going to build this road and got all the permitting.”
But they never acquired the right of way for it, he said, in part because of challenges getting the critical environmental permitting. The toll road would cut through Reedy Creek, an environmentally protected wetlands preserve in Osceola County.
When Poinciana was riding the housing market boom in the early part of the last decade, Avatar took another look at the possibility of getting a toll road built, Iorio said.
“By 2004, Avatar wanted to get involved more than ever,” he said. “Things were clicking along very well.”
That is, until they came up against the same problem of getting the environmental permitting to allow the highway to cut through Reedy Creek. The state eventually required that Avatar build a 15-foot bridge over the preserve, which inflated the costs of this project from about $40 million to more than $120 million, making it prohibitively expensive for the developer to finance.
“It was a series of unfortunate events, and we never got to build it,” he said, even though AV Homes remains committed to the project.
”We need this roadway and we need another road out of here,” Iorio said.
They tried to secure federal funds to build it, but the money was sent instead to a proposal – later killed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2011 – to build a high speed rail from Orlando to Tampa, Iorio said.
“No grant was given to the state of Florida because we got high speed rail instead,” he said.
So AV Homes turned to the county governments in Osceola and Polk, and convinced both sides to support the project.
“The latest agreement is we’re partnering with Osceola County,” he said. “And Polk has made commitments to $6 million to help with it, and they’re hoping to get $3 million from FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) to pay for it.”
The highway would be operated and supervised by the Osceola Expressway Authority, and the tolls collected from it would help finance the project’s long term maintenance costs.
“I’m anticipating it will be between a dollar and a dollar and a half,” Iorio said of the tolls.
This project would include building the bridge over Reedy Creek, which will cover a significant part of the overall cost, he added.
“The bridge has to be 15 feet high,” he said. “That will allow all of us to run underneath it. Elephants could run underneath it, and giraffes.”
But the bottom line, he said, is the project is finally getting a green light.
“Everything is moving ahead,” Iorio said.
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