INDIAN RIVER COUNTY, Fla. -- Some are calling it the sidewalk to nowhere.
The $1 million sidewalk stretches 20 blocks through an industrial area on Old Dixie Highway between 45th and 65th streets, north of Gifford. A sidewalk was intended to offer children a safer path to school, but is disconnected from any neighborhoods and public school routes.
Paid for mostly with federal dollars through the Safe Routes to School program, the nearly completed sidewalk was going to extend to 38th Street, putting it through a section of Gifford. But an investigation into the project found county officials later erased that portion from the plans when they discovered the county lacked the right-of-way to build across the front of 11 parcels.
The county was deep into a project that took five years to obtain federal funding and plan, and was staring at a deadline for completion, officials say, so they built as much of the sidewalk as they could, even though it was a section with few houses and sporadic foot traffic.
Some Gifford residents are angry the county lopped off what they feel are the most crucial seven blocks from the project. Most residents now are a half mile or more removed from the sidewalk that was supposed to give pedestrians safer passage on busy Old Dixie Highway to thoroughfares such as 53rd Street, where a Publix shopping plaza is planned, said William Shelly, a Gifford community activist.
"We're really outraged about this," Shelly said. "That sidewalk they have now doesn't do Gifford any good."
Shelly and other neighbors will meet with county leaders 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the county Administration Complex to discuss the sidewalk problems.
County officials say it was an oversight on right-of-ways, not a deliberate snubbing of Gifford.
"The right-of-way we thought we had, we did not have," said Chris Kafer, the county engineer.
Looking at maps, he and other public works officials assumed the county had a clear right-of-way to build a sidewalk across the edge of the properties between 38th and 45 streets, Kafer said. A property owner objected, prompting the county to hire a surveyor, who determined no right-of-way existed on that property and 10 others.
By then it was too late to obtain easements because the grant application had been submitted, Kafer said, adding the county had no choice but to remove the seven-block portion in Gifford if it wanted to use the federal funds and meet the deadline set for the end of this year.
The Federal Highway Administration dispenses the grant money and the Florida Department of Transportation oversees it for local governments in the state.
A $1.1 million grant was approved for the sidewalk project in March 2011. The county must finish the work by Dec. 31 to receive the money. A state transportation official said once the county applied for the federal grant, it became subject to stringent federal rules for obtaining right-of-ways.
To avoid the more cumbersome rules, the county would've had to resolve the right-of-way snags before it pursued the grant, and even then such an undertaking would've added at least 18 months to the project, said Ellen Daniel, a local engineer for the state transportation department.
Because that section wasn't part of the project, the county now is free to establish new right-of-ways there under state guidelines, Daniel said.
Kafer said the county might be open to paying the property owners for sidewalk easements.
The six people who own the 11 properties couldn't be reached for comment.
Bob Keating, the county's community development manager, said officials made a reasonable effort to build the sidewalk in Gifford but hit a roadblock.
"There's no conflict between us and the Gifford community," Keating said. "We both want the same thing."
However, Shelly said many residents are upset that the county never informed them of the change in plans. He didn't find out until he called county Public Works Director Chris Mora and asked why the sidewalk stopped at 45th Street.
"It's like our community doesn't really deserve an explanation," Shelly said.
He argues Gifford residents shouldn't have to suffer because county officials didn't do their homework.
The county should dip into its capital fund and do whatever is necessary to extend the sidewalk to 38th Street, he said. It would create a walkway in front of Gifford businesses and much-needed drainage canals along the street, he said.
"When it rains, it's like a lake out there," Shelly said. "We just want that area improved, just like the other areas on Old Dixie. I don't think that's asking too much."
Gifford residents aren't the only critics.
Other area residents contend the grant money was wasted installing a sidewalk in an industrial area with few houses, when it could've been built in an area with more foot traffic.
Along most of this 20-block stretch of Old Dixie Highway, railroad tracks and woods can be seen on the west side, while a
boat yard, storage units, warehouses and other light-industrial businesses line the east side.
The whole point of these federal grants is to create safe, useful walkways for school children, and that didn't happen with this project, said Leon Geary, a retired doctor and barrier island resident who called it "a sidewalk to nowhere."
"I don't think that sidewalk will ever be used by kids walking to school," Geary said. "I wouldn't let a child walk down that street by himself. It's isolated. It's out of sight."
However, a local traffic safety committee determined a sidewalk was needed on this high-traffic road because motorists zoomed past pedestrians and bike riders on a narrow shoulder, said Phil Matson, staff director for the county Metropolitan Planning Organization.
"It's got a terrible track record for safety," Matson said of the highway.
Mora said the sidewalk provides a safe walking route for children, enabling the district to eliminate some school bus stops and save money.
Normally the School District doesn't provide buses to children who live within 2 miles of a school, Mora said. Because this area was deemed too hazardous for kids on foot, the district busses them, he said.
But George Millar, the School District's transportation director, said he doesn't expect the sidewalk to affect school bus service.
The sidewalk links few, if any, Gifford kids to the area's two public schools — Gifford Middle School and Dodgertown Elementary, which are east and west of the sidewalk, Millar said.
It's also unclear how the sidewalk would affect students at North County Charter Elementary near Old Dixie Highway and 65th Street, Millar said. It might have general benefit for the public, such as giving employees at, say, the packinghouse a safer walking route to work, Millar added.
Richard Cahoy, a Grand Harbor resident, argues the money would've been better spent building a sidewalk on 49th Street, between Old Dixie Highway and 43rd Avenue, an area he described as a "danger zone" for pedestrians because of the narrow shoulder and busy traffic.
Putting a sidewalk on an industrial stretch of Old Dixie Highway is "ridiculous," Cahoy said.
"I don't blame the Gifford community for being upset," Cahoy said.