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Wonderwood completion date suffers another setback

Funding and environmental concerns hurting timetable.

By DAVID BAUERLEIN

The Times-Union

The target date for completing the final leg of Jacksonville's Wonderwood Connector has slipped another six months to 2008 as the hunt continues for $40 million needed to finish the 9-mile road in Arlington.

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority had planned to break ground on the last piece of Wonderwood Connector between Monument Road and Florida 9A in the spring and be done by late 2007. However, work on that segment won't start until late 2005 and finish in early 2008 because funding and environmental permits remain out of reach, according to the latest forecast.

"Oh, that is not what I wanted to hear," said Arlington resident Marie Everett. "I just have to hope it's going to get better soon."

"To say the least, it's extremely frustrating," said Tina Beckner of Arlington.

JTA originally expected to finish the entire four-lane road in 2003. Half of Wonderwood Connector is built and the portion from Girvin Road to Monument Road is on track to finish construction around April. But the piece between Monument Road and Florida 9A is still a two-lane road.

JTA applied in October for a $40 million, low-interest loan from the state Department of Transportation to plug a budget shortfall for the road. The project's total cost has risen to $146 million.

However, the Jacksonville Port Authority simultaneously sought a $43.3 million loan from the same statewide program for construction of an export-import terminal.

"There was no way we could have gotten both of them," said Aage Schroder, head of the state Transportation Department's Northeast Florida district.

JTA withdrew its application and the port authority learned Nov. 29 it won approval for its loan application. Statewide, the Transportation Department received requests for $326 million in loans and selected $128 million for the program.

JaxPort is wooing a "European automaker" to expand shipping operations in Jacksonville and faces competition from the Port of Brunswick, Ga., for the business, said Dave Kaufman, a senior director at the port authority. Port officials have previously said the automaker is Mercedes-Benz. The state loan has a 2.5 percent interest rate for payback over 30 years. The favorable loan terms mean JaxPort can offer a lower leasing cost to the automaker if it chooses Jacksonville, Kaufman said.

"We didn't stand a chance without it," Kaufman said of the state loan. He said the port expects to find out in January if the automaker will expand in Jacksonville.

JTA spokesman Mike Miller said the agency changed course on pursuing the state loan for Wonderwood Connector after gaining assurance from the Mayor's Office that City Hall would find a way to finance the rest of the construction.

"To be honest, we don't care where the money comes from as long as we're assured of getting it," he said. "What the city has done basically is say 'if you do not want to go that route [the state loan], we will assure you that you will get the money.'"

Kristin Key, spokeswoman for Mayor John Peyton, said city officials and JTA have been meeting about covering budget shortfalls for Better Jacksonville Plan roadwork and Wonderwood Connector. She said there is "no resolution yet" but talks will continue.

Miller said while funding is a factor, the biggest roadblock facing Wonderwood Connector's completion is finding a replacement for a planned drainage pond that would have been built in woods off Merrill Road. JTA scuttled plans for a pond on that site after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said a pond would violate an agreement to preserve the property as parkland unless the pond had "recreational benefits" in addition to drainage for the road.

After abandoning that site, which faced opposition from nearby residents, JTA has been trying to find an alternative that satisfies environmental regulators.

First Coast News reporter Melissa Ross contributed to this report.

david.bauerleinjacksonville.com, (904) 359-4581

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Funny...I remember writing about this my senior year of college (1999--Appalachian State Univ) when I was planning on moving here and had done a research report for my Urban Geog class on the Jax transportation system.

The Wonderwood Connector was a major trumpet the JTA was blowing then when I stopped by for information. Now they're talking about late 2007 it being completed. Would not hold my breath on this one...just doesn't seem to be the highest priority.

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I don't know about that. The major area of Wonderwood is almost complete. In fact I drive on it to school from time to time. They do not need the area from Monument to 9A done becuase there is less traffic there. The area from Mayport Road to Monument is main part that needs to be completed and will shortly. I would say that it is not disappointing because that segment of the road is not needed.

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