(Photo Credit: News-Journal/Clayton Park)
DAYTONA BEACH - As thousands of new homes and apartments continue to spring up along LPGA Boulevard, the half-century-old two-lane Tomoka River Bridge continues to be a traffic bottleneck that keeps getting worse.
A new group has formed hoping to solve that problem.
"I'm calling it the LPGA Coalition," said organizer Maryam Ghyabi. The group held its first virtual meeting on Aug. 27.
Those participating in the video conference included representatives of the city, Volusia County, the Florida Department of Transportation and the River to Sea Transportation Planning Organization (TPO).
The main topic was the need for a study on how to replace the 52-year-old Tomoka River Bridge with a new one that can allow LPGA Boulevard west of Interstate 95 to be widened to four lanes.
All participants agreed to reconvene later this month to see if a deal can be struck to jointly fund the Project Design and Environmental Study. The estimated cost is $2 million to $2.5 million.
Just getting the various parties to agree to work together is a victory in itself, said Ghyabi.
One of the biggest obstacles to replacing the bridge up until recently had been an inability of FDOT, the county and city to work together to solve the issue, she said.
"Nobody knows who owns the bridge," said Ghyabi. "That's not the point. For this project to move forward, I have proposed to the coalition that we combine a new bridge with the planned interchange improvements. It would make it easier to work on securing the funding."
'Finally Gaining Some Momentum'
With the formation of the coalition, Daytona Beach City Commissioner Rob Gilliland said, "I feel like we're finally gaining some momentum" towards coming up with solutions to the area's growing traffic congestion problem."
FDOT officials at the meeting expressed their willingness to consider including a replacement for the Tomoka River Bridge as part of its long-planned project to build a new I-95/LPGA Boulevard interchange. A new interchange would widen the road from four lanes to six.
Ghyabi said FDOT officials acknowledged it doesn't make sense to build a new wider interchange if the Tomoka River Bridge just a few hundred yards to the west remains just two lanes.
"FDOT's new district five secretary, Jared Perdue, said, 'I get it. I see how important this (a new Tomoka River Bridge) is for your community,'" Ghyabi said.
The problem, she said, is funding for the study. FDOT recently had to slash its budget for projects by $1.5 billion because of the coronavirus recession.
FDOT officials said the state likely would be willing to contribute up to $750,000 toward the study if the city, county, TPO and possibly private-sector developers would be willing to come up with the rest of the money, Ghyabi said.
"And everybody said yes," she added.
“The Department has been evaluating improvements to enhance mobility and relieve congestion at the LPGA Boulevard interchange, and is excited for the opportunity to team up with other local agencies allowing the project to be expanded outside the interchange," Loreen Bobo, director of transportation development for FDOT District Five, wrote in an email. Bobo and Perdue both took part in the coalition's kickoff meeting.
"This new coalition brings all partners together to pursue a regional vision for the area and will offer a greater benefit for the traveling public,” she wrote.
Volusia County Manager George Recktenwald, who also took part in the video conference meeting, agreed to look into the feasibility of having the county chip in $250,000 to help fund the study.
"I am very happy for the opportunity to work with the Florida Department of Transportation and the City of Daytona Beach," said Recktenwald. "It requires intense coordination and collaboration in order to design, permit and build a project of this complexity."
Recktenwald added that any financial support on the part of the county would need to be approved by the County Council.
Developer Makes Offer To Help
Orlando developer Beat Kahli didn't take part in the video conference meeting, but he is interested in contributing money toward the study.
Kahli recently acquired 3,000 acres on the south side of State Road 40/Granada Boulevard, west of I-95, with plans to develop a massive community called Avalon Park Daytona that could potentially have up to 10,000 single-family homes, townhouses and apartments as well as a "downtown" commercial district.
Kahli several months ago said he also was considering issuing a $75 million bond to come up with upfront cash to could help fund much-needed infrastructure projects in the I-95/LPGA area.
Those projects could include a new Tomoka River Bridge, a new I-95 overpass that would allow Hand Avenue to be extended further west and extending the south section of Tymber Creek Road that currently runs from LPGA Boulevard north to the entrance to Latitude Margaritaville further north to connect with SR-40/Granada.
"I'm very impressed with her (Ghyabi's) efforts," said Kahli. "A lot of things still have to come together but Avalon Park Group will definitely co-fund this study. The $75 million bond is definitely on the backburner. If there becomes a need for it, we can act, but for right now, the initiative with Maryam to do a study is the best first step."
Kahli recently met with Ghyabi at her Ormond Beach office to discuss the growing traffic congestion problem as well as Ghyabi's concerns regarding his project.
Ghyabi has been a vocal critic of the planned Avalon Park Daytona development, which she fears could make the traffic problems in the area worse.
"We had a one-hour meeting that turned into four," she said, adding that Kahli told her, "Maryam, I'm in," regarding the possibility of contributing money to help pay for the study for a new Tomoka River Bridge.
Ghyabi said, "I'm cautiously optimistic" after meeting with Kahli, but added that she still has reservations about his project.
State Sen. Tom Wright of New Smyrna Beach said replacing the Tomoka River Bridge and I-95/LPGA Boulevard interchange and widening LPGA Boulevard west of the interstate are top priorities.
"We need it. We need it now. It's just something that needs to be done," Wright said. "The bridge has become a choke point for traffic and that whole interchange needs to be improved and brought into the 21st century — not only for now, but also for future growth."
Daytona Beach's Gilliland agreed. "The city has a significant interest in this because LPGA Boulevard west of I-95 has grown to 5,000 residents and is expected to have 15,000 in a few years," he said.
Gilliland represents the part of the city that includes the I-95/LPGA area.
The city commission is scheduled to vote at its meeting this coming Wednesday on a proposal by Gilliland to contribute money to help fund the Tomoka River Bridge replacement study.
"We recognize that our residents and businesses in that area are directly affected by that bridge," said Gilliland on Friday. "The city needs to be part of the solution. That's why I'm asking the commission to agree that we will contribute to the PD&E study so we can get the project moving forward. ... I expect it will pass 7-0."
Bill Bullock, an executive with Minto Communities, developer of the Latitude Margaritaville community in Daytona Beach, said the formation of the LPGA Coalition is good news for the area.
"We support continued infrastructure improvements in the LPGA area," he said. "We've actually already met all our obligations for road improvements for the 3,400 homes we're building at Latitude Margaritaville. The impact fees we're paying go to the city and county to decide how to use for roadway improvements."
Bullock said his company has so far paid $8 million for needed infrastructure improvements including new turn lanes along LPGA Boulevard as well as the installation of traffic lights at the intersections of LPGA and Tymber Creek Road, LPGA and Tomoka Farms Road and LPGA and Tournament Drive.
The intersection of LPGA and Tymber Creek Road leads to the entrance to the Jimmy Buffett-themed 55-and-older community and is roughly a half-mile west of the Tomoka River Bridge.
Minto is spending an additional $4 million on a project to further extend the stretch of Tymber Creek Road that currently runs from LPGA Boulevard a half-mile north to Latitude Margaritaville's entrance. The project will essentially double the length of the south section of Tymber Creek Road, Bullock said.
Minto is not involved in the LPGA Coalition, but its Latitude Margaritaville development has been the fastest-growing new-home community in Volusia County in recent years. It is set to close on the sale of its 1,000th home this coming Thursday, just 2½ years after welcoming its first residents. Bullock said the community now has roughly 1,800 residents. An additional 400 homes are under contract, he said.
'A Positive Step'
Gilliland said he was encouraged by the LPGA Coalition's kickoff meeting. "It was a very positive conversation," he said.
Gilliland raised the possibility of having the city contribute money towards the PD&E study at a City Commission meeting on Aug. 19. Several commissioners, including Mayor Derrick Henry, expressed a willingness to consider the proposal, he said. "It was not a commitment, but it was a positive step."
Henry lives in the LPGA International community.
Colleen Nicoulin, a senior transportation planner with the River to Sea Transportation Planning Organization, also said she was encouraged by the first meeting of the LPGA Coalition.
"It went really well," she said. "It brought all the parties together — FDOT, Volusia County, Daytona Beach and our organization — to talk about the challenges and to identify potential solutions. It definitely was a first step in the right direction."
Even so, Nicoulin added, "I don't believe FDOT has made any commitment to doing it (including a new Tomoka River Bridge in its new I-95/LPGA Boulevard interchange project). The initial step is doing the PD&E study."
The River to Sea Transportation Planning Organization is an independent group that determines what road improvement projects that use federal and state money should get top priority in Volusia County as well as portions of Flagler County.
What's Next For The Coalition
Ghyabi estimates the study could take more than a year to complete. That would give the coalition time to figure out sources of funding for the new bridge as well as widening LPGA Boulevard west of I-95.
The public would have an opportunity to submit suggestions and comments regarding the design of the new Tomoka River Bridge, she added.
"I said (at the meeting) that I want to see massive public involvement and they agreed," she said. She added that she personally favors "a simple design that has the least environmental impact."
Ghyabi also serves as chair of the ISB Coalition, a group she helped form in 2007 with the goal of improving both traffic flow and the visual appearance of International Speedway Boulevard, the City of Daytona Beach's main east-west corridor leading to the beach. The coalition also helped with the design of the recently completed I-95/International Speedway Boulevard interchange.
"I'm happy," she said of the formation of the LPGA Coalition. "For years, Volusia County and the DOT have been at war. Now everything has changed with George (Recktenwald) and Jared (Perdue of FDOT) willing to work with each other. It was just amazing."
Traffic Worsening, 'But Not Intolerable Yet'
LPGA International resident Greg Cardino said he is relieved that FDOT, the county and city are finally working together to try to come up with a solution to the need for a new Tomoka River Bridge.
"The only way we're going to get this thing resolved is for all the parties to get together," said Cardino, vice president of the Lions Paw Home Owners Association at LPGA International. "Traffic has gotten worse in the past couple of years, but it's not intolerable yet."
The north entrance to the LPGA International community is on LPGA Boulevard, just a few yards west of the Tomoka River Bridge.
"The new traffic lights have helped. But Buc-ee's (the mega gas station/convenience store under construction just east of the I-95/LPGA interchange) hasn't opened yet," said Cardino. "It's going to keep getting worse without a doubt until the bridge can be replaced and LPGA Boulevard is widened."
Source: The Daytona Beach News-Journal