Florida speeds road projects while coronavirus dampens traffic

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While traffic in Florida has subsided because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state is fast-tracking several large transportation projects despite not asking economists to project how the pandemic could influence state revenues.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who issued a statewide stay-at-home order on April 3, ordered the Florida Department of Transportation on Saturday to accelerate portions of the Interstate 4 Ultimate project in the Orlando area.

The Maitland Boulevard reconstruction in Orlando, shown here in September 2018, is among many in Florida's 21-mile-long, $2.3 billion Interstate 4 Ultimate P3 project.

The I-4 Ultimate is a 21-mile-long, $2.3 billion public private partnership between the state and I-4 Mobility Partners, a venture between Skanska Infrastructure Development Inc. and John Laing Investments Ltd.

Since April 3, FDOT said I-4’s traffic has diminished to about 40,000 vehicles per day from 100,000-120,000 vehicles, according to FDOT Secretary Kevin Thibault.

With the ability to increase lane closures and extend work hours because of the reduction in traffic, FDOT said it will order segments of the westbound general use lanes completed along with an interchange at State Road 408.

The new schedule will complete this non-tolled section by one to two months, and "continue to provide much-needed jobs throughout Central Florida," FDOT said. This part of the project is expected to be completed in early 2021.

“We should take advantage of this pause” in traffic, DeSantis said “The fact that we don’t have as many people on the roads, let’s take advantage of that.”

Tolled managed lanes included in the project will open in 2022.

In mid-March, FDOT announced that it had reached a settlement with I-4 Mobility Partners, in which the department agreed to pay $125 million to resolve claims made by the P3 venture, most of which related to construction delays.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration on April 1 issued fines of nearly $189,000 against SGL Constructors, the contractor on the I-4 project, for worker deaths and injuries, according to Engineering News Record.

The I-4 project was financed in 2014 with a $949 million Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan, $486 million in bank loans and equity.

It is one of several transportation projects being accelerated even though Florida officials haven't conducted a review of potential revenue losses due to the impacts of COVID-19. In addition to the I-4 project, DeSantis announced April 1 that he ordered $2.1 billion in other road projects sped up.

An $864 million new bridge alongside the Howard Frankland Bridge between Clearwater and Tampa, for example, will be fast-tracked by nearly four weeks. The new bridge will consist of eight lanes - four general use lanes and four tolled express lanes. Construction is expected to begin this fall and take approximately six years to complete.

The Florida Turnpike Enterprise, which issues most of the state's toll revenue bonds, saw traffic counts decline 51% year-over-year by March 27, from 19.4% between Feb. 29 and March 27, FDOT said in a voluntary market disclosure April 2.

FDOT said it can't project the impact of COVID-19 on the Turnpike’s future traffic counts because there is no certainty about how long the public health crisis will last or the "types and duration of measures that could be imposed during this crisis," the disclosure said, adding, "According to FDOT’s traffic engineers, it is too soon to produce reliable estimates of potential impacts because of the uncertainties involved."

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Coronavirus Transportation industry Florida Department of Transportation Toll revenue bonds State of Florida Florida Ron DeSantis