Tolls will return to Jacksonville in about five years when a new, four-lane highway connecting Interstate 10 to Blanding Boulevard opens.
Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll joined Florida transportation officials Wednesday morning announcing construction of a the first leg of what is envisioned as an outer beltway around Jacksonville, beginning with upgrading the existing Branan Field-Chaffee Road corridor, or state Road 23.
Construction will begin in October 2012 on the $291 million project that is expected to create hundreds of jobs.
The highway also is expected to reduce traffic congestion and serve as a hurricane evacuation route. Carroll said the First Coast Outer Beltway will improve economic development in Clay, Duval and St. Johns counties.
"You will have an interstate-type experience from I-10 to Blanding," said Alan Mosley, District 2 secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation. "You will pay 15 cents a mile and you won't have any stops."
The toll is expected to be $2.25 for the entire 15-mile highway. The road will eventually cross the St. Johns River and end up at Interstate 95 near state Road 210, but that will come many years later.
Tolls will be collected using the fully automated system called SunPass, which does not require toll booth. Traffic can drive full speed through a gantry that automatically deducts the toll from a credit card account.
Carroll told Channel 4 that while Jacksonville voters approved a half-cent sales tax to eliminate tolls in 1988, this is the best way to fund new highway projects at a time of shrinking government revenues.
"This is not being mandated on any of the residents here," Carroll said. "It's is a user-fee road, so if you want to use the road, fine," Carroll said. "This is not a roadway that people have to use."
Those on hand for the announcement were happy to hear what was going to happen, but some are questioning the return of a toll road, particularly on Branan Field-Chaffee Road.
"People are not going to be able to pay two bucks each way each day to use this new road, to use a road we have already paid for," resident Kurt Kinder said.
But Carroll said the project will be a win for everyone because of jobs and better roads.
"Suppliers, local retailers and local rental equipment stores, mom and pop canteen operators, local gasoline stores, convenience stores will also benefit because of this major job activity," Carroll said.
This announcement comes as prospects loom for a federal gas tax that funds highway projects to go away. An existing 18-cent tax expires at the end of September, and given the mood about taxes in Congress, political observers believe it will not be renewed.
According to the Florida Transportation Commission, the loss of that tax revenue would cost Florida $5.1 billion in road, bridge and infrastructure funds over the next 20 years.
That, combined with shrinking revenue in state gas taxes due to increased fuel economy of new cars, will result in much less revenue for road projects. [Full Story]
"We are the fourth-largest state, soon to be the third-largest state in terms of population," said Commissioner Maurice Ferre. "It's not our kids who will have to solve this problem. This is a problem we will have to solve."