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The perfect storm

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on April 22, 2007.

Forget Jaguars teal or Main Street Bridge blue.

Spend a little time on the First Coast, and it's obvious the area's colors are the orange and white of the barrels strewn up and down our roadways.

It's not hard to find a construction site around Jacksonville: Head north or south and see the bulldozers on Interstate 95. Head east or west and deal with workers on Butler Boulevard or Branan Field-Chaffee Road. Drive around town and you can experience delays on Atlantic Boulevard, Main Street, Beach Boulevard and a host of other places.

And that's not even getting into the fallout from last week's focus of transportation woe: The Mathews Bridge.

With several dozen state- and city-funded roadway construction projects under way, the region is in the midst of a sort of perfect storm of traffic congestion, as detours from one project dump drivers on other under-construction roads, leading to unforeseen ties-ups and irate drivers.

"People complain about the congestion. When we get projects happening, they complain about that," said Denise Bunnewith, executive director of the First Coast Metropolitan Planning Organization, which helps prioritize the projects worked on by the state Department of Transportation. "You can't do all of those things without suffering some pain."

The DOT is in the process of spending about $375 million for eight high-profile projects, ranging from the $150 million going into the interchange between Interstate 10 and Interstate 95 to the $78 million for the widening of I-95 and the construction of the Trout River bridge down to a relatively paltry $5.59 million for work on Main Street.

The fact that money is available is the simple explanation for why so much orange and white can be see around the area.

As each barrel goes up, though, it creates an incentive for drivers to find alternative routes, routes that themselves are often under construction.

That fact was shown most clearly last week as the closure of the eastbound lanes on the Mathews Bridge scattered drivers throughout the area, introducing them to even more traffic woes.

Get off I-95 at Atlantic Boulevard, and you run into the work being done near the intersection of Atlantic and Beach - not a major project on its own but an irritant when thousands more drivers are using that intersection than would typically be there. Try to take Beach to the beach, and a similar story unfolds: Barrels and cones marking the widening being done between Florida Community College at Jacksonville's South Campus and Hodges Boulevard, as well as the work being done on the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, combine with heightened traffic to create a mess.

The situation was particularly irritating for those who - because of the closure of the Mathews Bridge - looked to go east by taking Main Street to 9A. Along the way, they had to deal with workers on Main Street and painters on the Dames Point Bridge. That was an issue the DOT was able to deal with: By mid-week, it had reduced the hours worked on Main Street and moved the painters to the other side of the span.

"We saw there was a problem, and we reacted to it immediately," DOT spokesman Mike Goldman said.

But not all projects have such flexibility, Goldman said. "If you brought those jobs to a complete stop, you're adding on a 90-day delay to each of them," he said. "We've always had continuous construction. It's been a very active construction area."

The confluence of projects wasn't directly planned: The fact that a large number of projects occurring at the same time is more a factor of the area growing - creating the need for the work - and money being made available - leading the DOT and the city to strike while the iron is hot.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization and the DOT look five years into the future when deciding what work will be done. In 2002, when the organizations started preparing the list of what would be worked on this year, the MPO listed only two of the major projects that are now under way: the connection between Interstate 10 and Branan Field-Chaffee Road, which DOT contractors have just started working on, and the interchange between I-10 and I-95, which has been in the works for years.

But projects routinely get moved around or pushed back on the work schedule as each year's funding is allocated, meaning that when money is handed out, planners jump to use it.

"When the money's available for these projects, it's more of just getting the job done as expeditiously as we can," Goldman said. "Florida's growing. We are still making the infrastructure improvements we need."

But congestion might be more than just a growing pain for the area.

For those who have concerns about the increasing amount of highway capacity in Jacksonville, the congestion such construction brings with it might actually be welcomed, at least if it causes drivers to think of the effect growth has on the face of the area.

Jacksonville is on its way to being another Atlanta, said Mike Lewyn, an assistant professor at Florida Coastal School of Law who studies sprawl issues. "Conventional wisdom is just build another road; we'll solve the problem and won't have to become like Atlanta. That's a strategy Atlanta tried for several decades," he said.

A short period of time spent sitting in traffic probably won't change that behavior, but if congestion is bad enough long enough, he said, people might be prompted to move closer to work and shopping rather than endure even-longer commutes.

Congestion might also lead people to look at other forms of transportation, an option that the Mathews Bridge closure has already turned some people toward. A Park-and-Ride lot operated by the Jacksonville Transportation Authority at the Regency Square mall has attracted about a dozen drivers a day, said JTA spokesman Mike Miller, drivers who figure if they're going to be stuck in detoured traffic, they'd prefer someone else do the driving.

But whether it's your own car or a city bus, getting around in Jacksonville isn't expected to get any easier anytime soon. The Mathews Bridge will have lanes closed through July, the Branan Field-Chaffee Road Interchange is just beginning, the Butler Boulevard and Florida 9A interchange construction will continue until summer 2009, the Dames Point Bridge will be painted for the next two years and the interchange between I-10 and I-95 will be worked on for another four years.

In short, get used to the sight of orange and white.



About

This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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