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Lawmaker insists his bridge is no boondoggle
By CRAIG PITTMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000
PORT ST. LUCIE -- If Ken Pruitt had his way, a six-lane highway would run from bustling Interstate 95 and the Florida Turnpike through the middle of sprawling Port St. Lucie and straight out Walton Road to the quiet beaches of Hutchinson Island.
Such a highway, about 12 miles long, would have to cross a couple of hurdles, starting with the North Fork of the St. Lucie River. A bridge would have to slice through environmentally sensitive wetlands, recently bought by the state to preserve them from development. The bridge would set down where a muddy nature trail ends at a picturesque canoe landing.
Then there would have to be a second bridge, connecting Walton Road to the island two miles away. That bridge would cut through the freshwater marshes of the Savannas State Preserve. It would splash through seagrass beds in the Indian River Lagoon, the nation's most productive estuary. It would land on the island next to a sea-turtle nesting area that federal officials want to add to Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge.
So far Pruitt, chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee, has gotten his way.
The Port St. Lucie Republican has funneled more than $25-million of state money into the Walton Road bridge project, helping out a cash-strapped local agency that already owed the state money from an earlier road it never built.
"I have done what I have to do to get the project in play," Pruitt said.
Meanwhile, to win approval for the St. Lucie River bridge, Pruitt has been arranging meetings and boat tours for environmental regulators. He even got Port St. Lucie Mayor Jim Fielding in to see the boss of the Department of Environmental Protection.
"He was a good guy to have on my side," Fielding said of Pruitt. "And now he's getting people down here and explaining to them how important it is to build this bridge."
Pruitt said he has been working to convince regulators that the two bridges are not connected so their permits will be handled separately -- even though local officials have for years viewed the two bridges as part of a single highway designed to promote development in the East Coast city.
"We want both of those (bridge permits) to come in at the same time because it's the same alignment," said Don Medellin of the South Florida Water Management District, one of several government agencies that have questioned whether there would be enough public benefit from the two bridges to outweigh the environmental damage they would cause.
"These are two completely separate projects," Pruitt insisted, although he said that together the bridges "will provide access for our residents from I-95 to the island on a safer, more efficient route."
Along that route, near Walton Road, city officials have proposed a riverfront development that Pruitt also has funneled state money into -- and which Pruitt stood to profit from, until controversy and lawsuits recently torpedoed his company's plans.
But linking his financial interest in the Riverwalk project to his support for the two bridges is "absolutely preposterous," Pruitt said.
His support for the second bridge, a proposed 14,000-foot bridge from Walton Road to Hutchinson Island, has emerged as an issue in Pruitt's race for a state Senate seat against fellow Republican Sharon Merchant. She contends the bridge is a make-work project that exists solely to pay back engineers and others who contribute to Pruitt's campaigns.
Pruitt says the bridge is popular among his constituents. But people on both the island and the mainland oppose it and the Treasure Coast Environmental Alliance has sued to stop it.
Officials from the state Department of Community Affairs, summing up the comments of regional, state and federal agencies, warned that they had "serious reservations regarding impacts to land use and the environment" from the bridge. Planners say it would not speed up hurricane evacuation, and experts say the bridge, which would charge a $1 toll, will not attract enough drivers to pay for itself.
"This bridge is really a luxury," said St. Lucie County Commissioner Cliff Barnes.
Yet Pruitt remains a fan of the span, so much so that opponents have dubbed it "Ken's Bridge." Pruitt contends that is misleading.
"This is not Ken's bridge," he said. "This belongs to the people."
Left holding the bag
Pruitt, a member of the Legislature since 1990, has lived for more than 20 years in Port St. Lucie, a city conceived in fraud and poor planning that continues to grapple with its flawed legacy.
In the 1960s General Development Corp. designed Port St. Lucie to be a retirement haven, but these days most of its 83,000 residents are working-class families.
GDC platted thousands of quarter-acre lots, then scattered the sales haphazardly around a maze of roads so full of curlicues that a city map looks like a cross-section of the brain.
The lots were not hooked to a central water or sewer system. GDC's plans left out schools, commercial districts and a downtown. And residents had no direct access to the nearby beaches and only two bridges to carry them across the St. Lucie River, which bisects the town.
GDC, which in 1990 pleaded guilty to federal charges it bilked home buyers, then went bankrupt, was supposed to build a third river crossing, according to City Engineer Walter England. He said GDC, once so powerful that executives picked the city's mayor, dodged the responsibility by foisting it off on the fledgling St. Lucie Expressway Authority.
The authority borrowed money from the state to plan a toll road and river bridge that passed through the emptiest part of the city. State officials concluded it was not financially viable and canceled the road, leaving the authority no way to pay its debts.
Before the toll road idea collapsed, some local officials suggested linking it to a bridge to the beach to make it more attractive. When their expressway expired, the authority hung onto the idea of the beach bridge, even changing its name to the St. Lucie Expressway and Bridge Authority.
The Walton Road bridge project did not shift into high gear until Pruitt became a member of the House leadership in 1998. Although the law says local toll projects can borrow only $500,000 a year from the state Department of Transportation, Pruitt arranged to get the authority DOT loans of $5-million.
Then, after experts said the toll bridge would not draw enough customers to finance its entire $50-million construction, Pruitt cut a deal with the DOT last year to get the authority a grant of $20-million it would not have to pay back. In exchange, Pruitt helped pass a law DOT officials wanted that allows them to go deeper into debt for their own projects.
DOT's willingness to help foot the bill proves the Walton Road bridge is not a boondoggle, Pruitt said. "They would never fund a pig in a poke," he said.
The DOT's own studies, however, show the bridge may not be needed. There already are two bridges to Hutchinson Island, neither of which charges a toll. One originates from Fort Pierce, north of Port St. Lucie, and the other crosses the water south of the city at Jensen Beach. The DOT says the bridges can handle traffic to the beach for more than 20 years, especially since the island is nearly built out.
The Jensen Beach Causeway is less than four miles south of Walton Road and leads to the island's most popular beach. On a quiet July afternoon, driving from the end of Walton Road down to the causeway and across to Hutchinson Island takes eight minutes.
To Pruitt, that's not the point. Neither bridge offers direct beach access from Port St. Lucie, and Port St. Lucie deserves a straight shot, he said.
A different argument for building the Walton Road bridge came out of a 1997 local planning meeting. An authority member, City Council member Ron Bowen, said the toll bridge would link up via Walton Road with a new bridge over the St. Lucie, "connecting to I-95 and the Turnpike, which would result in a huge east-west corridor that could be developed, and really has to be developed."
Couldn't pick worse route
One of the state officials that Pruitt brought in this month to take a boat tour of the two bridge projects was Eva Armstrong, who is in charge of buying environmentally sensitive land for the DEP.
After putt-putting along the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon, Armstrong said, "I told them it's going to be a tough sale."
Take the North Fork of the St. Lucie River, a collection of hardwood swamps and scrub that snakes through the middle of the city. To many residents the river is a brief interruption in the row of pest-control companies and palm readers lining Port St. Lucie Boulevard. But a 15-minute hike along the city's only nature trail leads to the river's canoe landing, where the only sound is the splash of jumping mullet.
The trail and canoe landing are on 700 acres of riverfront that the city sold to the state. The city rushed the sale so it would have money to fix roads GDC left unfinished. At the time, city officials told the state they might someday need to build a bridge there but failed to get anything in writing. City officials say the St. Lucie River bridge will become necessary very soon if the Walton Road bridge starts generating traffic.
To get back that land, Armstrong said, city officials will have to prove it is no longer needed for conservation and "they're going to have trouble meeting that test."
When DEP experts reviewed the city's bridge proposal last year, they wrote that city officials could not have picked a worse route. The 2,600-foot bridge would cut a concrete swath through the widest part of the otherwise pristine preserve. Stormwater runoff would pollute the river, and the traffic would disturb a nearby eagle nest. "We question the need for the road and bridge," DEP experts wrote, noting that state transportation planners had determined that it would do little to ease congestion on the other two bridges.
But when Pruitt got the mayor in to talk with DEP Secretary David Struhs last year, the project found a more receptive audience. So long as the city does as little damage as possible during construction and makes up for what it destroys, Fielding said, Struhs had no objection to the $26-million bridge.
"His philosophy is you don't want to destroy the environment, but sometimes you have to impede it for the good of the public welfare," Fielding said.
Pruitt predicted the St. Lucie bridge is a harbinger of road projects that will have to cut through environmental preserves in order to relieve congestion. Conservation is commendable, he said, "but sitting in traffic is also a quality of life issue."
Apartment deal collapses
During Armstrong's visit city officials also took her to see the area where they want to build Riverwalk, which they hope will become a downtown focal point for Port St. Lucie.
Plans for the project have, at various times, called for restaurants, a bandshell, a hotel, a performing arts center, a fountain, condominiums and apartments. The one constant has been a boardwalk by the St. Lucie River "so people can go down and enjoy the natural areas," the mayor said. "People can stroll it, sit and watch the sunset, or fish."
The city's new bridge over the St. Lucie would be just north of Riverwalk, he said, helping tie the project into that major east-west development corridor between I-95 and the beaches. Just as he has helped promote the two bridges Pruitt has aided Riverwalk, getting it a $300,000 state grant.
One of the main property owners in the Riverwalk area is James "Butch" Terpening, a longtime Pruitt ally whose engineering company has spent years working on the Walton Road bridge and recently helped the city with traffic projections for the St. Lucie bridge.
After Pruitt pushed through the grant, the lawmaker approached Terpening and proposed a deal on behalf of a company called Wendover Housing. Pruitt said Wendover would pay more than $1-million to buy Terpening's land and build apartments.
Pruitt, who has been paid thousands of dollars as a consultant for Wendover, lobbied city officials to approve the project. That's what Wendover pays him to do, he said, although this time he did it without disclosing his interest.
But the local paper blew the whistle on him, reporting that his employer planned to use federal tax credits to finance building low-income housing at Riverwalk. City officials and Terpening said they were outraged. Terpening and Wendover sued each other, reaching a settlement recently that put the land back in Terpening's hands. Pruitt said he made no money on the deal.
"I have never used my position at any time, anywhere, to influence anyone," Pruitt said. "I have never profited at all from my position as a state legislator."
As proof, Pruitt pointed out that when he was elected in 1990 his net worth was $750,000, and by last year it had dropped to $79,000. "Obviously," he said, "I'm not a good businessman."
- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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