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Stimulus-funded Florida bridge draws criticism

  • Story Highlights
  • Proposed $128 million Indian Street Bridge has been debated for 20 years
  • Critics say it's wasteful because another bridge connects same two communities
  • Suing resident: "The president should know ... he is getting swindled"
  • Others say spending shouldn't be used because project isn't shovel-ready
By Abbie Boudreau and Jessi Joseph
CNN Special Investigations Unit
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STUART, Florida (CNN) -- The most expensive item on Florida's list of economic stimulus projects is drawing fire from some residents and at least one public official, all questioning whether it's needed at all.

Some residents say it's wasteful to spend money on a new bridge when there's one less than three miles away.

Some residents say it's wasteful to spend money on a new bridge when there's one less than three miles away.

The proposed $128 million Indian Street Bridge across the St. Lucie River has been debated in Martin County, Florida, for more than 20 years. But now that it has been cleared to receive money from the federal government's nearly $800 billion economic stimulus effort, the debate may be over.

Critics say the span, which will connect the communities of Palm City and Stuart, is wasteful because there is already a bridge that connects the two communities less than three miles away.

"The president should know that this is a boondoggle, and he is getting swindled," said Odias Smith, who has been fighting the bridge for decades and is suing the state Department of Transportation to try to stop it.

Mike Mortell, chairman of the Martin Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the existing Palm City bridge "is in fine shape," but a bigger bridge is needed.

"It just simply doesn't have the capacity to move more cars over it," Mortell told CNN. "It is at capacity. Every day, as many cars that can go over it during the rush hour times go over it."

Supporters say the new bridge will ease traffic congestion, aid hurricane evacuations and create about 3,500 jobs.

"Those of us in favor of the bridge can't believe that we became so fortuitous that in a time of a recession when jobs are down that we actually found the money and have the opportunity to build this bridge that we've been planning now for literally over 20 years and now it's a reality," Mortell said.

Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard, one of the few county officials who oppose the bridge, said traffic does back up at the existing bridge. But she said the congestion can be resolved without spending money on a new bridge.

"There are some impediments at either end of the bridge," Heard said. "There are stoplights there that are timed so that travelers get stuck at the lights. They don't get stuck on the bridge."

And Smith said he uses the Palm City Bridge regularly and never has a problem with traffic.

"My house faces that bridge. You can see the cars go over it. I go over at 50, 55, all the time," he said.

Another source of contention between Martin County residents is whether the proposed project is "shovel-ready" -- a major test for stimulus projects, which are aimed at getting people back to work quickly. But Heard said the state has yet to buy all the property it needs for the right-of-way leading to the bridge, and that challenges from the current owners of those parcels could delay construction.

"I'm flabbergasted, to tell you the truth, because my understanding of the stimulus money was it was supposed to be for shovel-ready projects that could be completed in three years. This is not shovel-ready," she said. "We haven't acquired the land necessary for right of way. We don't have plans for it."

The Florida DOT says it has purchased 33 of the 63 pieces of property it will need to complete the bridge, and it expects to have all of them acquired by February 2011. But Smith said some people might refuse to sell.

"There's people there who want to stay. It's either their dream house and they're going to retire there or they're of modest means and they know they can afford it, but if they go someplace else, they can't afford it," he said.

One homeowner whose land will be affected by the project, who did not want to be identified, said she had hoped her home "would be a final investment for me."

"I think about starting over when I hadn't planned on it," she said.

If homeowners refuse to sell, the parcels may go into eminent domain disputes that can take years to resolve. But Mortell said the state can acquire the remaining properties quickly using a fast-track settlement, purchasing the properties at their appraised value and negotiating with the homeowner about a buyout price at a later date.

Heard "probably misinterpreted what shovel-ready means," Mortell said. He said the bridge has already been designed and all federally required studies have been completed, so work on some parts of the project can begin right away.

"Shovel-ready means that the project can move forward within 120 days, and that was a primary criteria in the stimulus plan," he said.

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Florida lawmakers approved the project for stimulus funding in April. Once the check arrives, construction will begin. But Heard said local communities should have had more of a say in the decision.

"I don't think that's fair," Heard said. "I think we could actually have gotten federal stimulus dollars for projects that we all support and are necessary here."

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