Most groundbreakings aren’t worth the PR, because that’s all they are: a chance for the shovel hogs to get their picture in the news, let their flesh be pressed and their egos stroked.
But Flagler County and Palm Coast have earned this one. And when Flagler County Chairman Frank Meeker said of the Matanzas Woods Parkway interchange with I-95 that “it’s been a long time coming,” it wasn’t, for once, a cliché. The county has been trying to get that interchange since the 1998 wildfires, which brought the county and Palm Coast face to face with a road infrastructure that wasn’t keeping up with development: when evacuation orders went out that summer, just two exits had to funnel the jam onto the highway. The county had since been alternately asking, pleading, begging and courting state and federal officials for money to enable the third interchange at Matanzas Woods.
Shortly after 1 p.m. today, under a makeshift white tent by roadside just before the existing bridge over I-95 on Matanzas Woods, members of the commission and a few guests went through the ceremonial groundbreaking with 10 shovels, a few feet from where the men and women of England-Thims and Miller had already leveled much of the wooded area that will soon be replaced by access ramps.
“I remember the old jokes back in those days where everybody said yeah, the animals can get out over the land bridge but the citizens of Palm Coast are kind of stuck,” said Meeker, who was braving a chemotherapy treatment to be at the ceremony. “That fire we all remember caused a mandatory evacuation of the county, about 35,000 residents. It burned 84,000 acres, destroyed 71 homes. The original size of Palm Coast was 42,000 acres.” The overpass, sans interchange, had its grand opening in December 2006. “I cannot emphasize enough how happy we are to start work on this interchange.”
Faith al-Khatib, the county engineer who shepherded the project to fruition, was beaming today, though not entirely because she was finally seeing what she’s referred to for years as “my baby” turn earth: she just became a grandmother.
It’s a taxpayer-funded projects, as all roads are, but with state and federal dollars: the Florida Department of Transportation is footing most of the $9 million bill. The biggest impact on area residents, aside from easing access to the interstate once the project is completed in the summer of 2016, will be the two-month closure of the Matanzas Woods Parkway overpass, starting June 5, so the road bed can be elevated five feet and be in line for its interstate ramp limbs.
Residents will also catch sight of two simultaneous projects in the area: the $5.7 million extension and four-laning of Old Kings Road from Forest Grove Drive to Matanzas Woods Parkway, which will relieve an expected surge of traffic from passing in front of Matanzas High School. And the two-lane extension of Palm Harbor Parkway to Matanzas Woods Parkway, a Palm Coast project.
“These projects take time,” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts, recalling how the widening of Palm Coast Parkway, not far from finishing, was first talked about in 1984. He represented the city at today’s groundbreaking. “I think this will be good for a number of reasons,” he said. “Emergency ingress-egress, that’s always important. But alternatives to the Palm Coast Parkway interchange means alleviating some of the traffic, some of the burdens, some of the congestion down there. So I think this is nothing but a plus-plus. And then when you add in the two ancillary projects, the Old Kings Road extension and the Palm Harbor extension, which takes all the traffic away from in front Matanzas High School. The three projects together are absolutely wonderful, for us, for safety, for the kids at school. I think it’s a great thing.”
There wasn’t much to the groundbreaking: a few words by a couple of other people after Meeker, then the ceremonial overturning of earth, and it was over: the crews of England-Thims and Miller could get back to work. There’ll likely be one more ceremony when the interchange is ready for traffic.
“People don’t realize how many commuters we have leaving Palm Coast for jobs, whether it’s St. Johns or Duval, to the north, and this is going to make a big difference in their commuting capabilities,” Commissioner Barbara Revels, who also chairs the county’s economic development advisory board, said. “Which could also bring us new residents because of the ease on and ease off to housing. And it’s going to open up new development areas. People don’t think that, but any time you put a new interchange in or a new school in, development pops up around it. Sao that’s what’s going to happen.”