Population rise pushes widening State Road 31, replacement plans for the Wilson Pigott Bridge
The Florida Department of Transportation is planning and designing a major project for State Road 31, from SR 80 to SR 78, in Lee County.
Work began this year and is expected to end in the spring of 2024.
FDOT wants to widen a section of 31 and renovate the Wilson Pigott Bridge, a drawbridge over the Caloosahatchee River. The drawbridge being raised to allow vessels of a certain height to pas has stopped traffic at times.
A recent in-person public meeting was held to inform residents of project information and alternatives, give them the opportunity to speak to project representatives and submit public comments. The civil engineering firm DRMP is working on the project alongside FDOT, and the firm's representatives were present at the meeting.
“I imagine the construction to be a nightmare for all of us who have to use 31. I hope it won't be as bad as I imagine, since 31 will remain as a service road,” Adele Smith, an Alva resident, said. She attended the Jan. 31 public meeting as secretary of the North Olga Community Planning Panel.
All four proposed project alternatives accommodate future traffic demand for the growing area by widening SR 31, addressing the bridge deficiencies, and improving emergency evacuation and response time.
Alternative 1A will replace the current bridge with a high-level fixed bridge and include a conventional signal at SR 80. Alternative 1A’s preliminary total estimated cost is $160,640,000.
Alternative 1B will replace the current bridge with a high-level fixed bridge and include a flyover at SR 80. Alternative 1B’s preliminary total estimated cost is $181,080,000.
Alternative 2A will replace the current bridge with a mid-level drawbridge and include a conventional signal at SR 80. Alternative 2A’s preliminary total estimated cost is $208,120,000.
Alternative 2B will replace the current bridge with a mid-level drawbridge and include a flyover at SR 80. Alternative 2B’s preliminary total estimated cost is $226,500,000.
“I prefer the elevated fixed bridge proposal,” Smith said. “This will help move the traffic on SR 31 if there is no drawbridge and it will cost the county less money to build.”
Mark Prochak is in charge of DRMP’s Transportation Division and was present at the meeting. He said that Lee County residents are worried about a high-level fixed bridge impacting the view of the Caloosahatchee River.
According to Evolution Engineering Consultants, the Wilson Pigott Bridge was built in 1960 with a 50-year design life. It’s received upgrades to its maintenance but is no longer meeting United States Coast Guard standards for horizontal clearance, according to FDOT.
Not only is the bridge about 63 years old, it also has low sufficiency ratings, mechanical malfunctions, narrow travel lanes and shoulders, and insufficient pedestrian and bicycle accommodations, according to analysis by transportation experts.
People who use the bridge and road also are concerned about changes to SR 31.
“The changes to this road will impact my life in many ways, most significantly will be the extra time it will take me to get anywhere,” Smith said. “When construction on the road begins and when all the new homes are built on North River Road, that time could triple.”
Smith has lived in Alva since 2007. She says that once people started moving to Babcock Ranch, more developers began looking at the area.
According to FDOT’s press release, this project considers “future traffic demands, safety, and to improve the roadway design to better serve the needs of all users, including bicyclists and pedestrians.”
Neal Communities is one of the developers interested in the area.
“We have two projects within the area; one of them, which has been submitted, is 31 Oaks, which is located pretty much the northeast quadrant of 31 and 80,” Jack Weber, land acquisition manager for Neal Communities, said. “We have another community up 31 off of North River Road, which is for public properties.”
Neal Communities purchased 778 acres on North River Road, and the company would like to build 1,100 homes.
Adele Smith’s role on the North Olga Community Planning Panel makes her aware of any changes to an area that was at least partly rural until recent years. She said that in addition to Neal Communities purchases, Pulte Homes bought acres of land from Babcock Ranch on the corner of North River Road and SR 31. Smith said Pulte wants to build hundreds of new homes.
FDOT is currently in phase 2 of this project. By spring 2024 the department hopes to begin phase 3, which is design. That phase is funded and will focus on detailed design plans, construction plans, cost estimates and permits.
After that would come phase 4. It too is funded and will consist of property appraisals, negotiations and acquisitions. The final phase is the construction, which FDOT said is not funded, and there’s no estimated timeline for the construction of this project.
“Whatever [plan] will provide efficient flow of traffic, they’re equally nice,” Jack Weber of Neal Communities said. “I think the elevated bridge is nice. It’s a continual movement so it doesn’t stop traffic.”
FDOT is hosting another meeting virtually online on Tuesday, Feb. 7 at 6 p.m., for community members to view alternative projects and speak to project representatives. Advance registration is required at this link. All public information of the project can be found online.
Public comments can be submitted on FDOT’s website, to Project Manager Patrick Bateman’s email address, or can be sent by mail to Bateman at FDOT District One, MS 1-40, P.O. Box 1249, Bartow, FL 33831-1249.
This story was produced by FGCU Journalism's Democracy Watch course. Hayley Lemery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org