As urban sprawl in Duval County has moved south, U.S. 17 has gradually expanded to accommodate the growth.
Through the years, sections of the road, which is the main highway connecting Duval and Clay counties in northeast Florida, were widened from four to six lanes.
In November, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) started a $31.4 million project to widen 1.5 mi. (2.4 km) of U.S. 17, including the Doctors Inlet Bridge, the last four-lane stretch along the road, which will now be six lanes from Orange Park to Green Cove Springs.
The work will stretch from Milwaukee Avenue to Creighton Road and is welcome news for Clay County officials, who have been looking forward to the start of this project for several years.
Archer Western Contractors, a subsidiary of The Walsh Group, was the low bidder for the job. Archer Western, a general contracting, construction management and design-build firm, is relatively new to northeast Florida, but has worked on several major projects in the last seven years, including the Interstate 10/Interstate 95 interchange project and a widening project on I-95 from the Trout River to I-295.
“They’re good contractors,” said FDOT spokesman Mike Goldman. “Their major presence in this area is the big interchange project. They’re doing good work for us on that job. That’s a tough job.”
Goldman said the FDOT has had success dealing with Archer because the company is committed to customer satisfaction.
“One thing Archer Western does well is they do not forget who the client is,” Goldman said. “They are very, very client conscious. They’ve been very fair with us, very above board with us.”
Once a quiet four-lane highway connecting rural areas of Clay County to employment in Duval County, in recent years the acres and acres of citrus groves the area was known for have given way to booming, upscale residential development, including Fleming Island.
According to Goldman, in 2003 the daily FDOT traffic count for that stretch of U.S. 17 was 53,500. By 2006, that number jumped to 57,500.
“It’s a high-growing area,” Goldman said. “Just take a look at the growth at Fleming Island. This project will accommodate growth going on out that way.”
While county leaders welcomed the project, County Commissioner Rob Bradley, who represents the Fleming Island area, said Clay County’s traffic challenges still need to be addressed.
One reason for the current gridlock along U.S. 17 is the number of Clay County residents who commute to high-paying jobs in Jacksonville.
Bradley would like to see more jobs in Clay County to keep workers off the roads.
“We need to have people driving south instead of north,” Bradley said.
For the next three years, drivers going north and south will find themselves dealing with delays while the Doctors Inlet Bridge, which opened in 1971, is replaced.
Most of the work, which includes milling, resurfacing and widening 1.5 mi. (2.4 km) of U.S. 17, drainage and new traffic signals, will be done during daytime hours, though there will be some night work when necessary.
“We can’t close lanes during the day,” said Don Davis, project manager for Archer Western. “We aren’t allowed to close lanes during the day. It really will not disrupt traffic. There are no detours allowed because there’s no where to detour them.”
Though there will be lane restrictions between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., each of the four lanes will be open for the morning and evening rush hours.
Davis said the project is in the very early stages and includes some preliminary roadwork and clearing.
“I have a few months of road work, some temporary asphalt to put down, a median to remove,” Davis said.
They were to start doing some temporary asphalt work, remove a median and do some test piles by mid-December. By the end of the year he had planned to start demolition on one of the bridges.
Once the job really gets going, Davis said, managing traffic will be the biggest challenge.
“There’s a lot of traffic through there, plus the logistics of working on the bridge,” Davis said. “It’s a very tight, limited access through that area, both in the roadwork and the bridge.”
Goldman agrees managing traffic will be a top concern.
“The real challenge is the fact that there’s a lot of residential development,” Goldman said. “It’s close to fast growing residential areas.”
Currently, there are twin bridges that have two lanes per bridge, separated by approximately 30 ft. (9.1 m).
That will change as the new span is built.
“We’re going to widen the southbound bridge approximately 24 ft. to the west,” Davis said. “We’re going to close the 30-ft. gap between the existing bridges so when it’s all said and done, you’ll have one solid bridge going across, which will have sufficient width to accommodate three lanes in each direction with a pedestrian path on each side.”
Goldman added the new bridge will have new safety shoulders, traffic railings and a fender system to protect the bridge from collisions.
About midway through the 990-day contract, the bridge will be closed to pedestrians. When pedestrian traffic reopens, walkers, runners and cyclists will have an enhanced pathway that will connect to Black Creek Trail, a popular recreation area.
While the inlet will remain accessible to boat traffic, there will be barges and buoys near the bridge, making the water more crowded than normal, though Goldman and Davis expect minimal impacts to the popular boating site.
“There’s a marina on each side [that] we’ll be working close to, but as far as blocking the channel in any way, we won’t,” Davis said. “We do have to replace the existing fender system at some point so there will be a period of time where we remove the existing fender system and construct a new one.”
Once the project is complete, it should ease the traffic problems at the point where the three lanes drop to two.
“Increasing it to three lanes really won’t improve the traffic flow, but it will be much safer,” Davis said. “You’ll have the extra lane [and] ample shoulders, but as far as increasing the flow of traffic, I don’t think it really will. There’s a signal going in as part of the project so they’ll be slowing down traffic.”
At this point, Davis said he’s still putting together a list of equipment they’ll be using at the site, but expects there won’t be any specialty equipment.
“It’s too early to get into that,” Davis said. “We have some issues we’re discussing with the FDOT that could change some of the equipment we’re using, but I think we’ll have the standard equipment, graders, pavers, dozers, cranes, pile drivers, that sort of stuff.”
At its peak, Davis said Archer will have between 50 and 60 workers on-site, including subcontractors. It has subcontracted Duval Asphalt Products to do the asphalt work and Tarmac to handle the concrete. Archer will do the bridge work itself. CEG