Florida Investing Lots of Money, Big Hopes in I-4 Project

It is one of the handfuls of examples nationwide of a state making a deep investment in highway spending in recent years.

Wed February 25, 2015 - Southeast Edition
KYLE HIGHTOWER - ASSOCIATED PRESS

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - In more than 30 years of living in central Florida, Brindley Pieters has experienced his share of struggles with Interstate 4.

”I tell you, some days you don’t know what to expect,’ said Pieters, a 69-year-old civil engineer. ”The problem with I-4 is one day it’s not so bad, and some days it’s horrendous.’

State transportation officials are embarking this month on a six-year, $2.3 billion makeover to a vital, 21-mile stretch that produces congestion so thick that frustrated commuters often call it the ”I-4 parking lot.’ Pieters and others are hoping this latest facelift will bring overdue relief to one the state’s best-known arteries - one that’s often used by tourists visiting the area’s theme parks and is the unofficial dividing line between south and north Florida.

Known as ”I-4 Ultimate,’ by year’s end the project will have four construction sites in Orange and Seminole counties. When it’s completed in 2021, the project will bring 56 new bridges (including a pedestrian crossing), reconstruction to 15 major interchanges and four, tolled express lanes.

The guts of the public-private partnership to replace the aging infrastructure of I-4 _ originally built in the 1960s_ is part of $3.8 billion in highway project spending that Gov. Rick Scott has set aside in his new $9.9 billion transportation budget.

It is also one of the handfuls of examples nationwide of a state making a deep investment in highway spending in recent years. Figures compiled by The Associated Press show the total amount of road money available to states from the Federal Highway Trust Fund has declined 3.5 percent during the five-year period ending in 2013, the latest year for which numbers are available.

During that span, the amount of inflation-adjusted federal highway money dropped in all states but Alaska and New York. In Florida funding fell just slightly, from about $1.91 billion in 2008 to $1.88 billion in 2013.

In response, Florida and other states have tried to devise ways to fill the gap.

This is the second straight year Florida’s overall transportation budget has been about $10 billion. It was $10.1 billion overall last year, with $9.4 billion of that devoted to projects.

”There are a lot of what we call signature, game-changer projects that we’ve been able to do because of these resources,’ Florida Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold said. ”It’s a little bit challenging, because we’ll have to deliver on those projects. And then we’ll have an opportunity to do a second round of these sorts of signature projects, and really change transportation in Florida.’

With the funding in place, the task now falls on the Florida Department of Transportation and private contractor I-4 Mobility Partners to complete the project in its allotted six-year window.

FDOT project manager Loreen Bobo said when construction reaches full capacity by December most of the work will be done at night. With a few exceptions, that will mean none of I-4’s existing lanes will have to be closed during the day.

Officials are banking on more commuters utilizing the infant SunRail commuter train. The new train averages about 3,000 riders each weekday.

According to the FDOT, about 200,000 vehicles travel in both directions combined through the portion of I-4 in metro Orlando that will be affected.

Bobo, a daily I-4 commuter herself, said that is something they’ve tried to account for.

”Anything that affects the travelling public, we absolutely want to make sure we thought of all the `What ifs?’’ Bobo said. ”We recognize that people’s lives are still going on. They still need to get to work. They still need to get to daycare on time, they still need to do all of those things. So we have to balance that.’