By Erika Webb
Big plans for Interstate 4 reach far enough into the future to accommodate the day when cars drive themselves.
Frank O'Dea, a Florida Department of Transportation official, presented plans to widen I-4 and an update on the study and strategies for DeBary Bayou to the DeBary City Council May 7
Mr. O'Dea, who also is a local resident, started with a big picture view of the Project Development & Environmental study being conducted on the large portion of I-4 from U.S. 27 in Polk County to State Road 472 in Volusia County before narrowing the focus to the fourth of a four segment project area -- from the U.S. 17/92/I-4 interchange at the northern edge of Seminole County to State Road 472.
Traffic delays caused by a daily average of 1.5 million trips along 73 miles, which comprise District 5, are costly.
"The problem we're trying to solve with I-4 is congestion," Mr. O'Dea said.
Of those daily trips, he said, commuters represent 58 percent, trucks 12 percent and tourists 30 percent.
"Orlando is recognized as the fifth most congested city in America," Mr. O'Dea said, "and that costs us in Central Florida anywhere from $650 to $800 million a year."
Construction on the "I-4 Ultimate" project for the area between Kirkman Road, near Universal Studios, and State Road 434 is expected to begin at the end of this year and wrap up around 2020, he said.
The "I-4 Beyond the Ultimate" PD&E study underway now covers around 40 miles of the remaining critical portions of I-4, according to FDOT, outside of the I-4 Ultimate project area. This includes the segments of I-4 from Kirkman Road south to US 27 in Polk County and from SR 434 north to SR 472 in Volusia County.
In 2015-16, preliminary design of the project will take place, followed by right-of-way assessment and procurement from 2016 to 2019.
The $2 billion, 21-mile Ultimate project is expected to create 60,000 jobs between now and its completion in 2020, Mr. O'Dea said.
Building new general use lanes to the outside and adding managed, tolled lanes inside is part of the plan to relieve congestion in the Orlando area.
Toll prices with accompanying expected travel times will vary with congestion levels.
"The idea is that we want to guarantee the amount of (trip) time," he said. "If you're gonna pay we want to make it a reliable trip for you."
Another PD&E will address extending express lanes in the Ultimate project into Volusia County up to SR 472. It will plan for changes to access points, a right of way evaluation, engineering and public input.
It will address the environment, specifically the DeBary Bayou in Southwest Volusia, as well as the "rail envelope."
Padgett Creek, the tributary that feeds the DeBary Bayou around Gemini Springs, shrunk from 500 feet to 30 feet across when the Interstate was built across Lake Monroe.
Over time the bayou has been increasingly choked with invasive plants and muck. Water there is stagnant; wildlife nearly non-existent.
"When we do expand I-4, we will be adding culverts that will help flush ... to make the water quality improve," Mr. O'Dea said.
FDOT also will evaluate the bridge across Padgett Creek for siltation -- the presence of a granular material derived from soil or grain-sized rock between sand and clay.
In 2012, the agency worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to study the Padgett Creek/DeBary Bayou area and impacts from I-4.
The study revealed the target depth for the water there.
"If there is any siltation we'll work with restoring those depths to where they should be," Mr. O'Dea said.
Also in the project, three or four general use, or free, lanes going in each direction will be located on the outside of the interstate. Two eastbound and westbound express lanes will be inside the general use lanes. Those will be separated by a concrete barrier wall, which is much safer than the plastic dividers being used between express and general use lanes in south Florida, he said.
That safety measure also takes into account what may happen down the road.
"We know that in the future cars probably will be driving themselves," Mr. O'Dea said, "and a lot of people fear that but have you seen some of the people driving?"
The Volusia County Council has requested FDOT consider preserving the rail envelope from SR 472 to I-95, he said.
The rail envelope is a 44-foot wide section of the I-4 median, which, prior to SunRail, was preserved from I-95 to Orlando for future rail use, according to FDOT Project Manager Beata Stys-Palaz.
After the SunRail project came about, Orange and Seminole counties opted out of preserving the rail envelope.
"Their thought process was they already have a rail parallel to I-4 with SunRail," Ms. Stys-Palaz said.
Access modifications under consideration include two alternatives for the ramp at Dirksen Drive in DeBary: improvements to the same configuration or adding a new direct off-ramp eastbound from I-4 to Dirksen.
To create connectivity between Deltona and Orange City, the department will look at extending Rhode Island Avenue, near University High School in Orange City, to directly connect to the express lanes on the interstate.
If drivers don't have to use the interchanges at Saxon Boulevard and SR 472, congestion will be alleviated in those areas, Mr. O'Dea said.
A public meeting for citizen awareness took place in Deltona earlier in the spring and a public hearing on the proposed project will be in the fall.
"Our goal is to have location-concept approval by the Federal Highway Administration by early 2015," Mr. O'Dea said.