By Atlee Mercer

Central Florida needs the Osceola Parkway East Extension sooner, not later. By building this road now, there will be less impact on environmental lands, fewer (if any) existing homes affected, and greater savings to taxpayers and toll payers in the future.

If you drive in Central Florida, you already know how bad traffic is, and that it just keeps getting worse. We desperately need additional road connections and capacity. Fortunately, the Osceola Expressway Authority (OCX) and Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) are working diligently to provide better transportation solutions, and one current solution is an ultimate link to our east coast neighbors.

For more than 30 years there has been a clear understanding of the need for an additional road corridor directly connecting Brevard County to the rest of Central Florida. Two years ago, the East Central Florida Regional Task Force identified the Osceola Parkway East Extension is an integral part of that planned East-West connection. This connection is important for the quality of life, and economic viability of our county, for an emergency escape route for our neighbors to the east, and it will ultimately enhance the integration of the major economic centers of the entire Central Florida region.

There is no doubt that this road will be built. It is just a question of when, how, and how much. If we delay, the cost of building it will dramatically increase. But an even greater concern is that, should we wait, more residential development will take place in its proposed corridor, resulting in fewer options for where the road can go without affecting homes, and more importantly, the adjacent environmental lands.

We all care about intrusive construction and protecting the environment, but we also need to discourage policymakers from kicking this can down the road.

Unfortunately, because the extension was not built sooner, there may be some impact to Split Oak Forest or Lake Ajay Village. The good news is, thanks to the leadership of Central Florida Expressway Authority Chairman Fred Hawkins, CFX is working on alignments that will avoid taking homes. In fact, the plan could make Split Oak Forest even larger, and ultimately with higher quality lands.

A solution calls for building partnerships with nearby landowners and expending additional dollars to purchase, donate, and improve property adjacent to Split Oak Forest. Depending on the alignment, the Osceola Parkway Extension would impact approximately 100 acres of the 2000-acre Split Oak Forest prairie and scrub preserve. But in exchange, Split Oak could gain many hundreds of additional acres of new land. There is the potential for a win-win. I know that Chairman Hawkins and the CFX Board are working hard to find that positive outcome.

It is also important to clear up the misperception that the Split Oak Forest prairie and scrub preserve is not legally allowed to be impacted, even when it serves a public good. The Split Oak Forest founding documents with the Florida Community Trust specifically permits the construction of “Linear Facilities” which include things like power lines, pipelines, and roads – when there is a clear and pressing need. Obviously, OCX, Osceola County, and CFX want to minimize the impact on conservation land, and it is appropriate that the Split Oak Forest gain additional donated and mitigated property in return for the road’s intrusion.

When OCX built the Poinciana Parkway, some in the environmental community clamored that “the sky is falling” and that the Reedy Creek Swamp would be badly harmed. We proved those naysayers wrong. After the construction was completed, and that road was opened, the environmental community has hailed the Poinciana Parkway as a model for protecting the environment.

With the Osceola Parkway Extension, CFX is poised to do even better. They can actually expand the Split Oak Forest prairie and scrub preserve, and ultimately improve the quality and quantity of the protected land. I am confident that the Osceola County Commission and the CFX Board will approve a plan that improves our region’s transportation network while it protects and improves the environment. Let’s give them a chance to do it right, but right now. The consequence of delay will be harmful to the environment, homeowners and taxpayers!

Atlee Mercer is the Osceola Expressway Authority chairman.