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Residents opposed to leasing of Alligator Alley; Majority saying no to state proposal

By Staff | Sep 18, 2008

Founding Fathers. National sovereignty. Your grandchildren’s future.

Rhetoric reached into the past and toward the future Tuesday at two public meetings on the state’s proposal to lease Alligator Alley to private firms for 50 to 75 years.

From 2-3:30 p.m. at the Hilton Naples, state Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, hosted a meeting inviting the public to weigh in on the proposed lease ahead of an evening meeting hosted by the Florida Department of Transportation in the same location.

At those meetings, speakers — all but one of whom opposed the lease proposal — excoriated Gov. Charlie Crist for trying to push the deal through and made impassioned appeals to the present FDOT representatives to take their message back to Tallahassee.

“How can we condemn future generations to the bondage of public-private partnerships?” asked Cindy Kemp, who stood at the afternoon meeting before an audience of about 80 holding a copy of David McCullough’s book “1776,” chronicling the nation’s birth year.

“Alligator Alley is the people’s road,” said Kemp. “Does Tallahassee think we are idiots to tax ourselves and sell off a road that is already paid for? It’s the furthest thing from what the Founding Fathers pledged their lives, their fortunes for.”

She suggested staging a modern-day Boston Tea Party along the alley, leading Collier Commissioner Jim Coletta to encourage attendees to send the governor a tea bag with an attached note expressing outrage over the lease deal.

“I would suggest to the governor that before he engages in signing a contract, he come down and conduct a public hearing such as this,” Saunders said. “If you’re up in Tallahassee, this road doesn’t mean a whole lot. But, if this road is privatized, there are going to be others across the state that will go the same way.”

Saunders’ meeting was set against the backdrop of signs made by members from the Citizens Transportation Coalition of Collier County, which have become a fixture of meetings on the alley’s lease under the direction of Gina Downs, one of the group’s leaders. Those signs were still there for the 6 p.m. meeting hosted by FDOT, where roughly 120 people were present, including many faces from the earlier meeting.

However, that crowd thinned considerably as the meeting stretched beyond the scheduled 8 p.m. end time.

Some of the new faces at the evening meeting included state Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, and state Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, both of whom have been outspoken critics of the lease proposal.

FDOT Assistant Secretary Kevin Thibault used the evening meeting to address the crowd and answer some of the questions raised at the afternoon meeting.

“This is not a done deal,” Thibault said, echoing his response to constant charges by critics that the lease has already been signed and sealed in a smoke-filled room.

But Thibault also referenced past experiences to point out that general wisdom does not always prevail in the case of long-term transportation decisions.

“Forty years ago, Alligator Alley was constructed under tremendous controversy,” he said. “The St. Petersburg Times said it was a risk the DOT could not take. … Imagine, 40 years ago if we let the public outcry win, this valuable asset we’re talking about that does serve a valuable need to connect the coasts would not be constructed.”

That did not tamp down any of the opposition at the evening meeting, where the same arguments from earlier were restated and driven home.

“I’m going to be very blunt,” said Michael Lissack, an unsuccessful two-time candidate for the Board of Collier County Commissioners. “Charlie Crist ought to be ashamed of himself. He’s basically trying to mortgage the assets of the residents of Collier and Broward counties to solve his budget needs up in Tallahassee.”

The evening meeting also included the return of the Boston Tea Party suggestion, with one addition: as Kemp repeated her plea for people to write to the governor, her husband, Mark Gerstel, walked through the aisles tossing tea bags to a laughing, clapping audience.

But even as the fervor quieted and the crowd thinned, the night still ended with a surprise. Resident David Rivera (no relation to the state representative of the same name) addressed the crowd as the lone supporter of the lease deal who was not there representing FDOT.

“You saw your elected officials stand up here and speak against this,” Rivera said. “I’ve been at meetings where the same elected officials ask the Department of Transportation to find solutions to their problems. This is one of those things where the elected officials haven’t been able to stand up to find additional gas tax. The government and the department of transportation has found a solution to that.”

Leslie Williams is a staff writer for the Naples Daily News.