It’s been years since the State of Florida began actively planning the four-laning of SR 29 south of LaBelle. Over the years the highway has had to meet ever-increasing demands and the improvements are intended to accommodate increased traffic flow, especially during the agricultural and tourist seasons; to upgrade safety; and to allow for additional evacuation capacity for residents of highly-populated South Florida to move northward in the event of a disaster.
The Florida Department of Transportation’s (FDOT) process for major construction of state roads is long and tedious. After a decision is made to improve a stretch of roadway, it is placed on FDOT’s five-year plan, which only means it is officially in the pipeline for eventual construction. Being placed on the plan does not mean a road will be finished in five years – only that it is on “the radar.”
All FDOT road projects must go through an extensive Project Development and Environment Studies (PD&E) process during which the department scrutinizes the road’s location, conceptual design and build alternatives, along with possible social, environmental and environmental effects. Many factors can move a project forward or hinder a project’s progress.
At this time, two sections of SR 29S just south of LaBelle are in planning stages simultaneously. From F Road to just south of Cowboy Way (SR 80A) is a 5.1-mile stretch; and from Keri (CR 832) to F Road is 5.5 miles.
Plans for the stretch from F Road to just south of Cowboy Way have a number of residential and business people along the area with serious concerns about the project as it stands.
Mainly, these folks are uneasy because they feel that several key roads and businesses will lack direct access to the southbound lane of SR 29. This access is vital because so much traffic from the neighborhood heads that way daily. A number of residents foresee long waits and traffic hold-ups if the current plan does not take their fears into account.
One possible snag is that, in the current plan, there is no direct entrance to Porterfield Oil and several other businesses from the south. Trucks coming from farms in south Hendry and the Immokalee area in particular often stop there to refuel. If the current plan is put into place, they would have to turn off onto South Loop Road and follow it around to North Loop Road, where they can finally access Porterfield Oil via a driveway the business would have to put in. Alternately, they could continue further north to refuel in an even more congested area. Over time, the extra time, fuel and inconvenience would hit those truckers in the pocketbook and ultimately the economy would feel it. FDOT has had several public meetings to show plans, hear questions and discuss options and a small group of area residents met at Community Harvest Church to discuss their concerns.
Among others, LaBelle resident Dean Tanner is concerned that, if the plan proceeds without better access to the southbound lane from the east side of the road, businesses there will suffer.
He also wonders why there is no accommodation for a center turn-lane for the Helms Road and says that Mim’s Welding will find it impossible to move their 54-foot long pipes off their property for delivery, because the Evans Road intersection is too narrow.
FDOT spokesperson JoAnn May has tried to address these concerns. She said FDOT is still looking at the Evans Road intersection and Porterfield Oil/North Loop Road sections, trying to find solutions to their issues.
Ms. May said that no rights-of-way have been acquired as yet for the F Road to Cowboy Way project, but that process is expected to begin later this year. Right-of-way acquisition is funded for 2018, 2019 and 2020 for $13 million. No construction has been funded at this time.
FDOT began to analyze that part of SR 29S in 2008 and has held four public meetings since that time, she said. The last was in July 2017. Project design and additional public meetings are planned for 2019 and more public input.
Acquiring right-of-way for the next section of SR 29S, from Keri Road to F Road, is to begin in 2023 ($1.6 million). Construction has not been funded as yet.
Not in these planning sections, but important to LaBelle, is the option of a roundabout on SR 29S at Cowboy Way. This is still very much in FDOT’s plans for the future.