Status: Under construction
Originally reported cost: $2.2 billion
Update for current status:
As of September 2023, the Interstate 4 “Beyond the Ultimate” project was under construction.
Update from Highway Boondoggles 4, 2018:
The widening of I-4 in Orlando, known as the “I-4 Ultimate,” is a massive, six-year reconstruction and expansion project that will transform 21 miles of highway – adding two tolled “express lanes” in both directions and rebuilding bridges and interchanges along the highway’s length. Yet all the new traffic the “Ultimate” is expected to attract threatens to create new bottlenecks at either end of the project. That fear has lent momentum to the proposed “Beyond the Ultimate” project, which would widen a further 40 miles of highway north and south of the project, costing $2.2 billion.
As of March 2018, sections of the project were still undergoing various stages of planning and funding, but at least one section of the project is tentatively set to begin construction in late 2019.
Original story from Highway Boondoggles 3, 2017:
When Interstate 4 was built through Orlando in the 1960s, few could imagine the city’s future growth. The population of Orange County, where Orlando is located, has more than quadrupled since 1960, while the Orlando area has simultaneously experienced the growth of a tourism economy that draws more than 66 million visitors each year – more than any other U.S. city.
Like many other Sunbelt cities, Orlando grew up during the age of the automobile – with locals and tourists trapped on highways like the congested I-4, which connects Florida’s East and West coasts. Today, the state of Florida is in the midst of yet another attempt to build its way out of congestion with the construction of the I-4 Ultimate project through downtown Orlando – a project whose effect of pushing congestion outwards is now being used to justify another multi-billion dollar highway expansion.
“I-4 Ultimate” is a massive, six-year reconstruction and expansion project that will transform 21 miles of highway – adding two tolled “express lanes” in both directions and rebuilding bridges and interchanges along the highway’s length. The $2.3 billion project is being completed as a design-build public-private partnership, with the concessionaire, I-4 Mobility Partners, receiving availability payments over the course of the project’s life, and toll revenue from the dynamically priced express lanes expected to cover half of the cost of the project. The project is the beneficiary of a $950 million federal loan under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA).
Florida transportation leaders see I-4 Ultimate as a “signature corridor” in the words of a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) spokesman, quoted in 2015 in Orlando Weekly. “The DOT wants the drive on I-4 to be just as much of the Florida experience as palm trees, sunshine, the great weather, Mickey Mouse, Harry Potter, all the things that people come to Central Florida for,” said FDOT public information official David Parks. To achieve that goal, FDOT is reportedly spending $40 million on “decorative touches” such as “a signature pedestrian bridge, accent lighting, fountain illumination, art sculptures and monuments, and other architectural treatments.”
The construction of I-4 Ultimate may, however, create bottlenecks and congestion farther up and down the highway as the widened road – which will almost certainly attract more cars – narrows from 10 lanes to six north and south of the city. Former U.S. Representative John Mica described the situation this way in comments to the Orlando Business Journal: “Once the I-4 Ultimate is done, just close your eyes and imagine four more lanes plus increased traffic pouring in from Kirkman Road in the next four years; you’re looking at a disastrous situation if we don’t do something about it right now.”
The proposed solution: spend an additional $2.2 billion or more on a project called “I-4 Beyond the Ultimate.” “Beyond the Ultimate” would extend the new express lanes north and south of the section currently under construction, affecting 40 additional miles of highway. The southern section of the project passes through a tourism-heavy area with resorts such as EPCOT and Sea World, while the northern section travels through a suburban area with heavy commuter traffic into and out of central Orlando each day. Construction of the project could affect several hundred properties, including a shopping center popular with visitors to Disney World.
The majority of the project received federal approval in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but FDOT is now in the midst of a re-evaluation study needed to obtain approval for changes to the project, which was originally slated to have high-occupancy vehicle lanes in place of the currently proposed toll lanes.
Orlando has been making headway in adding new transportation options for residents and visitors that do not require being stuck on I-4 or adjoining roads. The city of Orlando has committed to a complete streets policy, has planned expansions of bus rapid transit and considered light rail transit, and has added carsharing and bikesharing options. In 2014, the region launched its SunRail commuter rail service, which serves a north-south corridor roughly parallel to I-4, and expansions of the line to the north and south are planned. SunRail service, however, has been extremely limited – with trains once every half hour during rush hours, service ending mid-evening on weekdays, and no service on weekends. Ridership on the line has struggled but could be improved with investments in additional service.
The reconstruction and expansion of I-4 through Orlando reflects a big bet that highway expansion and tolled express lanes can finally address congestion – a bet that hasn’t worked out well elsewhere in Florida, with the spread of express lanes generating complaints among drivers in parts of the state. The “Beyond the Ultimate” project would be yet another big bet in favor of car-dependency and automobile-oriented sprawl.
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