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Toll idea advances despite opposition

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By Scott Powers | Sentinel Staff Writer

Posted March 16, 2005

The state is moving forward with controversial plans to build toll lanes down the center of Interstate 4 as a way to ease the bumper-to-bumper traffic that plagues Central Florida's most-hated road.

Work on the toll roads, derided by critics as "Lexus lanes," could begin in four years and be done by 2013.

The idea of toll lanes inside I-4 was blamed by many as one of the downfalls of a transportation tax that Orange County voters turned down in 2003. And it still has powerful opponents, including U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, who vowed to kill it.

Mica, a powerful member of the House Transportation Committee, called the idea of a toll road within I-4 "offensive" and said he would fight it with "every ounce of energy."

State transportation officials have insisted for years that there is no way to build I-4 wide enough to handle all the traffic. They say the only way to assure that someone can get to or through Orlando without bogging down in congestion is to create something new: a whole new route, just expensive enough to use that people would only drive it if they have to.

With a pledge of $350 million in seed money this year from Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, the Florida Department of Transportation thinks it can start a $1.5 billion final overhaul of I-4, including the toll lanes from Longwood to Universal Studios. However, they'll need federal money to complete the project.

State officials are calling the concept a highway within a highway. The toll lanes would be called Xpress 400; the state-highway designation for I-4 is State Road 400.

"The way we look at this, we're not tolling the interstate. Tolling the interstate would suggest you're converting existing lanes to toll lanes, and you're tolling all the lanes," said Jim Ely, chief operating officer of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise. "We're not doing that. We're adding new capacity, which is user-financed, and not tax-financed."

Under the state's plan, I-4 would be rebuilt one last time, from just east of S.R. 434 to just west of Kirkman Road. Most of the interchanges and bridges would be rebuilt. The fourth lane in each direction, now intermittent, would be made continuous. Difficult curves, such as the one near Fairbanks Avenue, would be engineered for faster traffic.

Most of the $1.5 billion cost covers the interchange improvements. The toll-lanes portion alone would cost about $305 million, state officials said.

Drivers could get in or out of the toll lanes at eight spots along I-4 or several cross streets. Electronic-message signs would tell drivers what travel times are in the free and tolled lanes, and what the tolls are, so drivers could choose.

The lanes would be open only to people with electronic transponders that can tally tolls by radio signals even at high speeds. Fares would be adjusted frequently to try to encourage or discourage more traffic to get into the toll lanes. For example, when traffic backs up on the toll lanes, the price will go up to discourage more drivers from getting on them.

But Mica, who helps funnel transportation money to Florida, said he would consider legislation to keep interstates from harboring toll lanes. He said he also would consider restrictions so that money could not go to I-4 or other interstates if toll lanes were being considered.

His comments came after Ely and Florida's Transportation Secretary Jos

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What a ridiculous idea. Having a toll lane within I4. I hope Mica squashes it. However we do need something like a HOV lanes that alternate directions during the day like near DC or a light rail running down the center of I4 kinda like the subway in DC outside in Fairfax County where it runs between I66. We need several options but i dont think a Lexus Lane is one of them. Commuter Rail and than Light rail. Complete the last leg of the Beltway from Apopka to Sanford so if you were passing through Orlando you could bypass downtown. I4 is a mess and there is not much more you could do with it!!!!

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I agree with Firemick that placing a light rail down the center of I4 would be a much better alternative. I've rode the metro which runs down the interstate outside DC and it is often packed at rush hours. I think the same would be the case here if large garages were built at each station with easy access and reasonable parking rates. With the insane and seemingly ever increasing gas prices I think alot of commuters would take advantage of I4 light rail.

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I can't tell you how against this idea I am. I would much rather see some form of mass transit system installed than see any lanes added to I-4, toll or otherwise.

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I can't tell you how against this idea I am. I would much rather see some form of mass transit system installed than see any lanes added to I-4, toll or otherwise.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I agree but if we're talking light rail it can't go down the middle of I-4. It needs to be able to make at least 4-5 stops in downtown and riders need to be able to walk to offices. It needs to run on the CSX lines like the old plan. And now that WP is densing-up, maybe they will reconsider using the Central Park station.

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Leave I-4 as it is and spend the extra money on establishing a better light rail system, as an alternative way to get around town. If you choose to sit in back-to-back traffic on a congested 8 lane interstate, while the light rail train wisks by you, so be it.

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I agree. Eventually people will be forced to use public transit because of the lack of convenience that I-4 providews, not that its already not like that already. You hate to do it like this, but the situation is getting serious and if something isnt done soon we will get to a point of no return. Hope government officials get in gear soon.

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