FORT MYERS, Fla. - Lee County leaders voted Friday to proceed with a study of an Interstate 75 interchange project that would be funded by a controversial $10 million congressional earmark.
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Local leaders didn't ask for the money to connect I-75 to Coconut Road but got it anyway, thanks to an earmark by an Alaska congressman who benefited from a fundraiser two years ago hosted by a builder who owns land surrounding the proposed Coconut Road interchange.
Fifteen local elected leaders sitting Friday as the Metropolitan Planning Organization decided to move forward with the project, despite the controversial source of its funding, which was detailed recently by stories in southwest Florida newspapers and the New York Times.
Planning group members agreed to expand the scope of the study, an action seen as a compromise that would allow the county to keep the $10 million but have more control over where an interchange might go if the study determines it is needed.
The money came in an earmark by U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who made it clear it could be used only for Coconut Road. The newspapers detailed the connection between Young and Michigan builder Daniel J. Aronoff, whose companies own thousands of acres of undeveloped land that would increase in value if Coconut Road were extended and connected to the interstate.
Aronoff, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., had hosted a fundraiser in 2005 that brought in $40,000 to Young's campaign.
Young's spokeswoman responded to an interview request this week by faxing several pages of articles and editorials supporting the Coconut Road interchange, including one from Florida Gulf Coast University President William Merwin who called the project "vital."