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Rising costs pose challenge to Lee County transportation plans

There are currently 12 projects on Lee County’s tier one project list, amounting to an estimated cost of $1.1 billion. So far, almost $500 million is still unfunded.
Samantha Roesler
There are 12 road and bridge projects on Lee County’s tier one list, amounting to an estimated cost of $1.1 billion. But almost $500 million of that price tag still are not funded, and inflation is driving up costs.

Residents of Lee County who make daily commutes may experience more traffic annoyances soon as inflation drives up the cost of road and bridge projects. That could mean major transportation improvements happen slower than planned.

The Lee County Board of Commissioners met this week to discuss cost increases of their current and future road projects due to inflation. County staff members told commissioners the annual inflation rate for non-residential construction averages about 8%.

The county started a transportation priority list in 2015, two years after four main projects priorities were identified. Two of these projects have since been completed, and one of the two remaining projects is the Estero Boulevard reconstruction. It is scheduled to finish at the end of next month.

There is a list of ranking criteria used to determine which projects are priorities, such as safety and amount of funds from other sources like tolls. There are currently 12 projects on Lee County’s tier one list, amounting to an estimated cost of $1.1 billion. So far almost $500 million still are unfunded.

“Whatever we’re committed to, we need to commit to it and continue but I think we really have to pause and kind of hit the brakes, look at this and start to look at funding sources, start to understand the cost, start to understand how we’re going to come into this,” Commissioner Kevin Ruane said. “My concern is that we’re going to commit to so many projects and we’re going to run out of funding sources in general.”

The Cape Coral bridge project is one of the priciest on the tier one priority list, with a current estimated cost of over $180 million and an expected start date of 2026. The budgeted estimate for the construction was originally $125 million as the plan for the bridge was to only replace the westbound span. However earlier this year plans changed to widening both to the westbound and eastbound parts of the bridge. The design contract for the project is currently being negotiated, and the county has spent just over $19 million so far on the beginning phases of the project, leaving over $160 million unfunded.

People like Katie Roberts who travel from Cape Coral daily to their work in Fort Myers hope that the county keeps the bridge reconstruction project at or near the top of any list.

“It should be a priority because it’s all about safety and Florida is known to be a very dangerous place in general,” Roberts said. “People just need to be safe, and we have so many people coming down for vacation, it’s just not a good look for our area because we’re constantly having accidents.”

One commissioner said the county must re-examine the priority road and bridge projects in light of rising costs.

“I think we as a board have a responsibility to do the projects we need to do and commit to what we need to do but make a hard look at what projects certainly have a gap or potential concern or lack of a funding source and really kind of identify those,” Ruane said. “I think we’re in unprecedented times that none of us have really seen and my concern with the demand as hyper as it is right now, I don’t know how you continue to project accurately.”

Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais mentioned the $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by congress and signed by President Joe Biden. Forty percent of that bill is going to be allocated through a federal competitive process, which is believed to favor shovel-ready projects.

“We’re not sure what (the process) looks like yet,” Desjarlais said. “But if we think that 8% inflation rate on these projects is going to continue for a couple of years, you know, if anything keeps me awake at night these days, it’s that.”

Commissioner Brian Hamman said he believes money from the infrastructure bill could go a long way in the community.

“Our folks who live here pay a lot into the federal treasury...and would love to get their tax money back down here and help alleviate some of these infrastructure problems and challenges that we have,” Hamman said.

As this new infrastructure bill seems promising, county leaders now are committing to finding ways to show their need for the funding.

“We will start a very robust planning effort on what we can get shovel ready so that we will be in a more competitive position for the federal dollars,” Desjarlais said to the board during the meeting.

For now the leaders said they will try to follow through on their commitments to Lee County residents, despite the rising costs.

“It’s one society, one community and as these prices keep going, and the housing prices keep going up, and it's got to stop somewhere,” Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass said. “When’s it going to stop? That’s the big question.”

Over the next couple of months Lee transportation planners will begin a process to balance available revenue with cost increases. They're supposed to bring their report to the commissioners in May.