TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A state task force has recommended a series of changes to improve safety and relieve congestion on Interstate 75 between Tampa Bay and North Florida, but it stopped short of calling for a new toll road in the region.
The I-75 Relief Task Force, appointed last year by Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold, looked at traffic improvements in Alachua, Citrus, Hernando, Levy, Marion and Sumter counties.
"The task force's primary focus was on developing strategies to provide relief to I-75, which serves as a critical gateway to Florida for both people and freight," Tom Byron, a Department of Transportation assistant secretary who chaired the panel, said in the newly released report. "I-75 faces significant safety, efficiency and reliability issues today --- all of which are anticipated to become more significant as our population, visitors, economy and trade flows continue to grow."
Among other findings, the report showed that the stretch of I-75 between Hernando and Alachua counties has a higher crash rate than other similar roadways in the state. Incidents increased between 2010 and 2015, closing, on average, at least one lane or interstate ramp every 16 hours and all lanes in one direction every nine days.
Congestion on I-75 is at an acceptable level on typical weekdays but becomes a problem on weekends and holiday periods, with projections showing that weekday capacity will be exceeded by 2040. The congestion will increase with population growth in the region as well as with an increase in tourists, many of whom use the interstate to get to Orlando and the Tampa Bay region.
The amount of freight carried between Florida and other states is expected to increase 80 percent on the I-75 corridor by 2040, with the interstate in the Ocala area "carrying the most tonnage of all highways in the state," the report said.
To meet those challenges, the task force developed a set of immediate to long-term recommendations:
--Expand the capacity of I-75 between Hernando and Columbia counties, including express lanes and truck-only lanes.
--Improve and expand nearby roadways, including U.S. 301 from Hernando to Duval County and U.S. 41 from Hernando to Columbia County.
--Expand freight rail capacity and connectivity, with emphasis on CSX's "S-line," which runs from Polk to Duval County.
--Provide more long-distance choices for residents and tourists, including intercity bus services and passenger rail.
--Evaluate the need for new "multimodal, multiuse corridors" to connect Tampa Bay and Northeast Florida after evaluating the enhancements to I-75 and other highways in the region.
Thomas Hawkins, a member of the 1000 Friends of Florida environmental group who served on the I-75 task force, said the panel looked at the possibility of another high-speed roadway, including a toll road, through western Alachua, eastern Levy and western Marion counties but rejected the idea.
"A new toll road through this area, north-central Florida's farm belt, would bring development pressure to convert natural and agricultural lands to urban and suburban land use," according to 1000 Friends of Florida.
Hawkins said potential corridors for a new highway could have impacted the Withlacoochee River, Rainbow River and Rainbow Spring, based on the Department of Transportation's environmental analysis.
"Planners for Florida's future transportation infrastructure should take note that the task force recognized these potential harms and declined to recommend a new tollway," Hawkins said.
Alachua County was among the local governments that questioned the need for building a new major highway in the region.
"New transportation corridors should only be considered as alternatives once significant improvements have been planned and programmed to existing corridors," the County Commission said in a letter sent to the task force in June.