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Task force leans toward I-75 expansion

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By Mike Wright
Members of an transportation group tasked with finding solutions to current and future Interstate 75 traffic congestion are warming to ideas that stick to freeway expansion.
Several I-75 Relief Task Force members said they prefer significant upgrades to the interstate, including truck-only lanes, to building a new roadway north from the Suncoast Parkway.
At the same time, some members expressed concern the state could not find an alternative corridor to connect I-75 in Alachua County to the Tampa area via the Suncoast Parkway without damaging valuable conservation or environmental lands.
Alachua County commissioners also reached that conclusion. They sent a letter to the I-75 Relief Task Force asking that it consider improvements to I-75 rather than building a new corridor through the county’s fragile eco-system.
The task force had its third meeting Friday at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville.
After hearing several residents of Alachua, Marion and Citrus counties speak against a new corridor, Sumter County Administrator Bradley Arnold suggested the task force focus its efforts on improvements to I-75, U.S. 301 and rail lines.
Jim Wood, state transportation planning administrator, urged the task force to not abandon the idea of roadway improvements plus a new corridor.
Florida Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold appointed the multi-county task force late last year. It has two charges: recommend ways to relieve congestion on I-75 between the Florida Turnpike in Sumter County and Gainesville; and, help to create a new transportation system to connect Tampa Bay with Jacksonville.
The task force is expected to wrap up its work by July.
Task force members heard several suggestions regarding I-75, including adding truck-only lanes or toll express lanes.
State officials also showed a map of the study area showing “numerous areas” to avoid or where impacts should be minimized.
Charles Lee, president of Florida Audubon, said the state should present the task force with two clear alternatives:
A route from the Suncoast Parkway where it will end at State Road 44 in Lecanto in four years, north to I-75 in Alachua County. He said the group should be shown whether such a route is feasible considering the amount of public lands north of Citrus, particularly in eastern Levy County and Dunnellon.
Alternatives to boost access to I-75 and other north-south roads, including U.S. 301 and U.S. 41. “These two need to be clearly out on the table in front of us,” Lee said. While Lee questioned the state’s logic in extending the Suncoast Parkway north of U.S. 98 to S.R. 44, citing reports of lower-than-expected traffic volumes, he said the parkway’s logical path is to continue toward I-75. “It seems to me the fixture of that road and this road are intertwined,” he said. Rebecca Bays, executive director of the Citrus County Economic Development Authority, said continued extension of the parkway was vital to the county. “I certainly hope it continues to north,” she said. “You have to be able to support the local economy.”
The next task force meeting is 9 a.m. Wednesday, April 6 at the Rohan Regional Recreation Center in The Villages.
State officials suggested some short-term and long-term solutions to alleviating traffic issues on I-75. They include:
Creating “real time” information on message signs that warn travelers of fog, smoke or intense congestion resulting for special events, such as a University of Florida football game.
Cameras that detect fog or smoke in areas such as Paynes Prairie in Alachua County, site of a 2012 multi-vehicle fatal pileup. The state could have pre-arranged detour routes.
Additional road rangers on duty to help stranded motorists or minor traffic accidents on stretches of the freeway congested by special events.
Adding “truck-only” lanes between the Florida Turnpike and Gainesville.
Adding toll express lanes for vehicles in that same stretch of road.
Making U.S. 301 an alternative by building a bypass around Starke.
Creating new freight connections by using abandoned railroad lines.
Mike Wright is a reporter for the Citrus County Chronicle.