The city will have to place $6 million in an FDOT controlled escrow account if it wants to extend utility services as Sam Allen Road is widened.
There’s no negotiation. Plant City has two choices: give the Florida Department of Transportation $6 million to hold on to or wait what could be seven years before it can extend utility services along Sam Allen Road.
“As it is right now, this is probably the best you’re going to get,” City Attorney Ken Buchman told the commission during its Oct. 23 meeting.
While it’s not unusual to sequester a project’s full funding before it’s carried out, Plant City is usually in control of its own finances. However, the road widening project along Sam Allen Road slated to begin in 2018 is under FDOT jurisdiction and they say the money must be kept in an FDOT account.
The oft-stalled Sam Allen Road widening project looks to change the road from two lanes to four between Park Road and Paul Buchman Highway, nearly completing the four-lane loop around the city commissioners have been trying to create for more than 20 years. Enhancing the road in the city’s northeast quadrant, as well as making sure utilities are connected to the quadrant, is a crucial footstep in preparing for Plant City’s growth, Assistant City Manager Bill McDaniel said.
“It’s critical to the future because it allows us to sustain both the plan and some of the anticipated growth that will occur,” McDaniel said. “Anything else that gets filled in and annexed and targeted for development, this is also important to that.”
The population in Plant City is expected to double in just over 20 years, with most of the growth expected in the northeast quadrant, according to the city’s Imagine 2040 comprehensive plan. By the end of 2018, a new water treatment plant is already slated to go up north of I-4 along Buchman Highway and south of Sam Allen Road, Utilities Director Lynn Spivey said. The road widening project is an opportunity for the city to enhance its connectivity to the growing quadrant while the road is already under construction. If the city waits on the project, it could be seven years or more until FDOT would okay putting utilities under such a new road.
Moving the $6 million it’s been estimated the utility work will cost into an FDOT controlled account isn’t altogether risky, McDaniel said, just not ideal. McDaniel said Buchman fought for Plant City to have shared ownership of the account with FDOT, but they wouldn’t budge.
"The city attorney and I are not totally excited about handing over 6 million-plus dollars to the DOT but they are good partners. They are reliable," Interim City Manager Kim Leinbach told the city commission Oct. 23. "They may be a little slow to work with at times, but I think that's going to be the deal. Either we allow that to happen or the deal is off."
Moving the money should, however, be one of the last hurdles the project faces.
Plant City was first presented with the idea of widening Sam Allen Road as part of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization’s five-year plan in 2007. It wasn’t until the last days of 2013, though, that the city was able to enter an agreement with FDOT to complete utility work concurrent with the road project.
The project was then stalled for more than two years as inclusion of a since-abandoned noise wall was debated and reactivated in 2016. Then came another stall as FDOT and Hillsborough County discussed details of the project, as the projects scope falls into county and state jurisdiction as well. After the year stall, it was activated again in March with FDOT telling the city to move ahead with obtaining permits from CSX for work needed to be completed beneath and along side CSX property. Those permits have proven to be an additional hurdle. The city is waiting for, and has been told they will receive, the necessary permits by Nov. 15. Without the permits, FDOT can remove more of the utility work from the scope of its project. However, FDOT is also waiting on CSX permits for its own work.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of projects over my tenure,” Leinbach said. “This has turned out to be one of the more complicated ones.”
In addition to utility work along Sam Allen as part of the FDOT project, the city is engaging in a project of its own to connect the new water treatment facility with the utilities along Sam Allen.
According to the utilities department, utility extensions along Buchman Highway and Sam Allen Road will include 24 and 18-inch water mains, an 18-inch reclaimed water main and an eight-inch sewer force main. The finance department said the money should be transferred to the escrow account by mid-2018.