Are pricey palms a waste of your money?

Taxpayer money used to landscape road projects pays for palm trees

ORLANDO, Fla. – Drivers may have noticed special palm trees are going up at almost every major road construction project around Central Florida, but those trees cost a lot more than you may think.

The specific type of tree is called a date palm. You see these usually in high-end neighborhoods, but lately, they're popping up at flyovers, overpasses and interchanges. But often, an entire project could be landscaped with native palm trees for the cost of just one of those date palms.

Those date palms are a prominent part of the landscaping at the new U.S. Highway 17-92 flyover that connects Casselberry to Maitland.

"It has a beautiful orange trunk," said Doug Dickerman, of Paradigm Outdoor. "You can see how on the bottom half, it has a diamond cut down whereas on the top half, it's just been pruned. When you open up the canopy, it spreads out to be 10 feet wide and is just stunning."

"What does a tree like this cost?" asked News 6 anchor Erik von Ancken.

"That's about a 10-foot tree, so retail is on average about $2,500," said Dickerman.

But across the street, the cabbage palm, the one you see all over Florida is a fraction of the cost -- 10, maybe 20 times cheaper.

"That's correct, but it doesn't look as good," said Dickerman.

"Perhaps the other palm maybe gives you another look you're trying to establish as a lansdcape arch," said Steve Olson, spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation. "(It's) an attractive gateway to your city, an attractive enhancement to your roadway."

The Florida Department of Transportation said the Legislature forces FDOT to spend money on landscaping -- 1.5 percent of the cost of all road projects. So at U.S. Highway 17-92 and State Road 436, an overpass that cost $21 million to build, almost $600,000 of that paid for sprinklers, shrubs and expensive palm trees.

"Isn't there a better use for $600,000 than buying expensive palm trees?" asked von Ancken.

"Well, 1.5 percent the of budget goes to landscape, and if it's an entryway, you work on it," said Olson. "You want it to look good. You want your roadways to look good. You don't want to be wasteful and look at the budget, but you look at what an opportunity it is to beautify, make a statement."

"It's a waste of money," said Edward Bernard, a landscaper. "It is. It is a waste of money. But like I say, we have no say so in what they do with landscaping around here."

Bernard only has a say in the trees he plants.

"I'd just put grass there for soil from eroding, that's all," said Bernard. "Don't need trees there. (Drivers) have to pay attention to driving at an overpass, not looking at no trees."

The other problem is, the only way to make an expensive flashy tree, still look that way, weeks, months, even years later, is to take care of it. That costs money, too -- money that some counties and cities clearly don't have or, at least, won't spend.

Olson said the cities or counties sign off on the high-end trees, and promise to maintain them, but it doesn't always happen.

Bernard said the money could be better spent on other things.

"Money should have went to schools, the homeless, should have went to people in need," said Bernard. "Neighborhoods that need that kind of money, where there's no sidewalk. Kids on the side of road where cars can run over them in neighborhoods with no streetlights so it's not dark at night -- that's where money should have went."

FDOT admitted just because it is forced by lawmakers to spend the 1.5 percent on landscaping, they could buy less expensive trees, they just choose not to. They also said one way to keep those expensive trees looking good once they're planted, is picking up the phone and calling them. They said let them know if maintenance is shoddy.

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