Florida’s Coconut Road is a dead end, but the controversy surrounding it is so convoluted that it might as well be a roundabout.

At issue is how a $10 million earmark got in the 2005 transportation appropriations bill. The money was dedicated to study a possible interchange between Interstate 75 and Coconut Road to improve hurricane evacuation routes.

Rep. Don Young, at the time chairman of the House Transportation Committee, put the earmark in for Florida. That’s what the chairman of the House panel, which doles out the nation’s highway funds, is supposed to do — provide money for projects that other members of Congress deem important to their districts.

The problem is homeowners in the area don’t want the interchange and the additional traffic it would bring to their neighborhood. Environmentalist are also concerned that the interchange could open up sensitive wetlands east of Interstate 75 to development.

Local officials are divided over the interchange study. Officials from Florida Gulf Coast University, which is just east of the proposed connection, told Young the project was important for hurricane evacuation and would improve access to their growing campus. The university said it would also be a boost to plans to develop a national research center on emergency transportation systems.

However, the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization, which decides local road issues, voted in August to reject the money.

Young decided the study had national importance as an emergency transportation demonstration project and offered to provide funding for it in addition to Florida’s regular transportation dollars.

Young has declined to speak about the issue, citing the advice of lawyers on a potential ethics investigation. Sources close to the issue, though, said the money was put in the bill after discussions with Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla.

Rick Alcalde, who was a lobbyist for the university and was at the Florida meeting, said Young saw the need for the interchange as hurricane safety project of national importance.

Alcalde said his understanding of what happen was that Young talked to Mack about providing $10 million to study the interchange in addition to the $81.1 million the committee provided for the widening of Interstate 75.

“Don Young talked with Connie Mack about it and he felt he had a strong green light from Connie Mack to proceed,” Alcalde said in a telephone interview Friday.

Jeff Cohen, Mack’s chief of staff, denies Mack ever discussed Coconut Road with Young.

Cohen says Mack and Young talked solely about the “urgent need to expand Interstate 75″ and that the only request made of the then-transportation chairman was for money to widen the highway.

Cohen claims the first time Mack became aware of the $10 million for Coconut Road was after the final bill was approved by Congress. Mack is backing efforts by the Lee County planning board to have the money reassigned to the widening of Interstate 75.

Opponents of the study suggest the earmark was in response to a fundraiser put on by Florida real estate developer Daniel Aronoff that raised $40,000 for Young’s campaign. Aronoff, a supporter of both Young and Mack, owns property that could possibly be developed if the interchange were built.

But there are questions about how Mack, a freshman in 2005, could have served on the Transportation Committee alongside Young without having a discussion on the interchange study. There have also been four bills in the House to deal with corrections to the 2005 transportation spending plan and Mack has never asked for the earmark to be changed.

“This is a freshman lawmaker who just got elected and he is bringing a lot of money home to his district” in the transportation bill, Alcalde said.

But that’s not the end of the controversy. There’s also the issue of how the earmark got changed.

During the enrollment process for the bill, when basic errors are cleaned up before the text is sent to the White House for signing, the designation of the $10 million earmark was changed from “widening and improvements in I-75″ to Coconut Road Interchange/I-75.

The former committee staffer accused of asking the clerk to change the earmark denies it. However, he added that while committee staff and members often suggest corrections, no one is authorized to make changes except the enrollment clerk. Even those changes, he said, must be agreed to by the leadership of the committee from both parties.

Alcalde says there were about 88 changes made to the bill after it was passed to clean up errors, including correcting the $10 million for the Coconut Road interchange study.

“The staff felt like there was some stuff that had so unequivocally been agreed to that needed to be fixed,” Alcalde said of the last minute changes. “This thing never would have been signed off on it everyone hadn’t agreed to it.”

“The confusion was caused by overworked staff and the guy that has to pay for it is Don Young,” he added.

The Washington-based watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense have asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate how the earmark was changed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., did not respond by press time to questions on whether she would call for such an investigation.

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