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Locals continue to voice big opposition to leasing the Alley

By Staff | Dec 2, 2008

The church of transportation was all fire and brimstone Tuesday night.
Presented with one last opportunity to state their case in a public forum, Collier County residents spared no barbs for Florida Department of Transportation officials in railing against the proposed lease of Alligator Alley.
The forum was held at the Hilton Naples from 6-8 p.m., with a turnout of about 40 people.
“You have no clue, and no right to bring us into this experiment, turn around in a few years and say, ‘That didn’t work so well.’ We’re stuck with it for 50 friggin’ years,” said Gina Downs, one of the lease’s most outspoken opponents in Collier.
As Downs left the microphone, she was a little red in the face, as were many of the people who spoke at the meeting, the last in Collier before six firms are expected to submit bids on the 50-year lease of the 78-mile road.
Another meeting, the last in Broward County, is scheduled for today from 6-8 p.m. at the Signature Grand on State Road 84 in Davie.
Though previous meetings invited public comment, Tuesday’s meeting had an air of question-and-answer session, which invited plenty of interaction and a fair share of heated exchanges.
Project executive Kevin Thibault, an assistant secretary of transportation, said previous meetings allowed less of an opportunity to answer questions because FDOT officials did not know many of the details of the lease until recently.
A revised draft of the lease agreement was posted last week, with added information about toll rates and maintenance requirements.
However, many questions Tuesday centered on perhaps the most important detail: what the state expects it can get for the road.
“Of my opinion, the Florida Department of Transportation should have a value before these bids even come in,” said Jim Flanagan, a Golden Gate Estates resident. “This information isn’t available to anyone to make a valid approach to make a decision on if this is a good thing or a bad thing.”
Flanagan asked whether administrative costs at FDOT would be reduced or increased if the state enters into an agreement with one of six teams, comprised largely of foreign firms.
Thibault told Flanagan costs would not rise or fall — that the department already has staff in place to oversee contracts, even unprecedented ones in the state like a road lease.
Sandi Leddy, a Naples resident, used the format of the meeting to make her own point.
“These companies that are interested in leasing the Alley, why are they interested in leasing it?” she asked.
Thibault said they see it as a way to invest in equity.
“To make money?” Leddy shot back. “So if they invest in the Alley, they’re going to make a profit. But if we invest in the Alley, we won’t make a profit?”
She was met with applause from the audience, a smaller turnout than at past meetings, where 100 people have come to protest the lease, signs in hand.
Thibault, flanked by District Secretary Stan Cann and FDOT’s attorney for the project, Kent Rowey, said private industry is better equipped to take on risk than governments. Additionally, he said, companies can afford to take steps, such as paving a road with concrete rather than asphalt.
It is more costly, he said, but lasts much longer and can be more cost-effective over time for private companies that have the start-up capital laying around.
Attendees, who continued to call for alternatives to the lease, particularly criticized officials for considering the deal during a recession, with bank failures becoming an almost weekly occurrence.
Rick Haylock, of Golden Gate Estates, raised the failure of Lehman Brothers, arguing that bank executives were unprepared to deal with the changing market. He said the remaining investment firms looking to bid on the Alley are equally ill-equipped to take on a 50-year investment in Southwest Florida.
But Thibault, taking a cue from the fiery sermons of some of the meeting’s attendees, said the state has to be just as nimble in finding ways out of the economic crunch that has forced cutbacks in transportation spending statewide and countrywide.
“We’re not going to put our heads in the sand and say, ‘Oh, I hope manna comes from heaven,'” he said.
But Haylock latched onto the budget issue.
“When things get tight, you tighten your budget,” he said. “You don’t go out looking for more money that you can spend wildly. We’re gonna make this the third rail in politics. The third rail is that if you vote for this, we vote you out.”
With a hearty thump of the lectern he took his seat, and the meeting ended.
Bids from six pre-approved teams are due to FDOT by 4 p.m. Jan. 9. A public meeting is scheduled for Jan. 12 for the department to formally announce the bids it received.
To view the draft lease agreement, visit: www.alligator-alley.com.

Leslie Williams is a writer for the Naples Daily News.