OKEECHOBEE — A plan to extend State Road 710 to connect with U.S. 441 North was once again on the agenda at the Dec. 17 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission.
FDOT has been working on this plan since 2007.
“We expect to get Federal Highway approval early next year. This will allow federal funds to be used,” explained Jeffrey James, who was FDOT’s SR 710 Extension Project manager until recently.
David Dangle, P.E., of Inwood Consulting Engineers, said the project has been studied since 2007. He said the project goal is to reduce congestion at the intersection of U.S. 441 and State Road 70, He added that during the hurricanes in the 2004 and 2005, the congestion caused by hurricane evacuation was also a consideration.
He said they first looked at the possibility of widening State Road 70 to six lanes to increase the traffic flow. However, he explained, this would require more right-of-way than is available.
Widening SR 70 to six lanes would require business relocations, he said.
Such a project could cost an estimated $72 million to $81 million.
Extending SR 710 to connect with U.S. 441 North of the railroad tracks will cost an estimated $53 million, he said.
He said for the scope of this project, the western limit is U.S. 441.
However, he added, at the time there was discussion about a loop to the west.
“When we looked at that, in the future, we looked at where could we tie in that is a possibility,” he said.
“We looked at three areas we could tie in to U.S. 441: N.W. 36th Street, N.W. 23rd Lane and N.W. 14th Street as viable alternatives,” he said.
Mr. Dangle said all of these alternatives are north of the U.S. 441 railroad crossing.
The one at N.W. 23rd would run straight into the airport. The other two could continue to the west in the future if that was desired, he said.
“When we came up with these three connection points, we met with county, city and school board staff,” he said. Those meetings were in 2009.
FDOT came up with maps of the three “spaghetti tracks” for extending SR 710.
They then went through an analysis of potential impacts, environmental impacts and impacts to houses, he said, and did a traffic evaluation for the three connection points.
“With the federal highway administration, you really have to show a traffic need for a new roadway,” he said.
“The father north you got from the downtown traffic, the less the traffic,” he said.
The option that is the farthest north, N.W. 36th Street, has less than 5,000 vehicles a day, he said. It just doesn’t justify a new roadway, he said.
The one at 23rd lane carried more traffic, but it still didn’t get SR 70 to the level of service required, he added. In addition, Okeechobee Schools did not support that because they bought the piece of property just south of the high school and they didn’t want the road severing that and having students crossing a four lane road.
“The option that made sense was the N.W. 14th Street area connection,” Mr. Dangle said. It carried more traffic. It did bring the SR 70 level of service up to the level sought, he said. “So that is the option we moved forward with,” he said.
He said they held public hearings on the options and the feedback supported the N.W. 14th Street option.
After coming up with the plan for this option, another public workshop was held in 2010.
The preferred alternative route requires the fewest residential relocations, he said, and will cost an estimated $53 million.
The plan moves SR 710 slightly east as it nears SR 70. Connecting the old SR 710 to the alignment will still provide access along with the old SR 710 corridor. It will still provide access to all of the properties that have access today, he said.
In 2010, FDOT requested and received letters of support from city and county government.
“We looked at widening the existing road to four lanes. It’s more of a rural roadway design,” Mr. Dangle said.
The said the plan continues a 12 ft. multiuse path that will go along the entire roadway.
FDOT took this plan to a public hearing in January 2013. After this hearing, FWC came up with some new requirements in regard to the environmental impact on the Crested Caracara and the Bonneted Bat. He said over the past two years they have done the additional surveys.
“We finally received the approval from Fish and Wildife service Sept. 9 of this year,” he said.
“We submitted the documents to the Federal Highway Administration in October.
“We received comments in November and we are addressing those right now and plan on resubmitting to Federal Highway Administration this month,” he continued.
“If they approve everything, the project will be approved,” he said.
As far as funding goes, there is funding for the design, he said. Funds for acquisition of right-of-way are in the FDOT’s five-year work plan through 2020.
There is no funding for the construction in the five-year work plan, he said.
The funding for right-of-way for improvements to SR 710 south of State Road 70 has not yet been allocated.
He said there will be a traffic signal where the SR 710 extension meets U.S. 441 at Northeast 14th Street.
“We’ve had comments from the nursing home and the hospital. They are not happy with the amount of traffic they think will be backing up,” said Commissioner Terry Burroughs.
He suggested connecting at Ninth Street.
“Where the plan is now, it makes no sense to me,” said Commissioner Burroughs. “Apparently it made sense to someone else who was sitting in this chair.”
Mr. Dangle said they cannot change it now without going back and starting the project over.
Commissioner Terry Burroughs suggested adding a noise abatement wall between the roadway and the nursing home.
Once the Federal Highway Administration approves it, the design work will start right away, Mr. Dangle said.
Commission Chairman Frank Irby suggested a traffic signal at N.W. Ninth Street would be a big help.
“Ninth has a fair amount of truck traffic coming out,” he said. “That is a big issue. Generally what they do is they just pull out, and we all stop because they are bigger than we are.”
Okeechobee Utility Authority executive director John Hayford said OUA has expressed concerns about the plan for years.
He said he made a comment at the public hearing at KOA in 2010.
The plan as shown will go through the backwash area of the OUA groundwater plant, he said.
“As of today, they have not addressed those issues with us,” he said.
“They have to address the issue that we have shallow wells,” he said. “It can be addressed but it hasn’t been addressed.
“They have surveyed,” he said. “They put stakes right through our pond.”
“If you don’t have a pond, you don’t have a plant,” said Chairman Irby.
The design staff are fully aware that they need to do something, said Mr. Dangle.
“Because we had these two years of environmental surveys, nothing has happened,” he explained.
He said the concept plan will be redefined during the design.
City administrator Marcos MontsDeOca said the city also has some concerns. He said some things have changed since the extension project planning began in 2007.
“I would urge you to come and speak with city staff,” he said.
Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org