By Ted Jackovics
May 31, 2011
When Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal funds to build the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail leg in February, he told the U.S. Transportation secretary other projects were more important — including widening I-4 in Orange County and widening I-275 in Hillsborough County.
However, the Florida Department of Transportation does not have any widening projects programmed in its five-year work program in the Tampa Bay area, a plan that is updated every year.
“The DOT is going to be looking at all options for relieving congestion along I-4, which will continue to worsen if improvements are not programmed,” spokeswoman Kristen Carson said. “We will have to be bold, creative and innovative when it comes to looking at improvements along the I-4 corridor.”
Indeed, over the next 25 years, I-4 traffic is expected to increase.
FDOT projects that between 2010 and 2035:
•I-4 traffic east of I-275 will increase from 163,500 vehicles to 253,500;
•I-4 traffic at a point east of I-75 will increase from 143,500 to 240,200;
•I-4 traffic west of the Hillsborough County line will increase from 113,500 to 220,700.
There’s also the I-4 toll road connector between the Port of Tampa and the interstate, scheduled for completion in 2013.
FDOT projects 20,000 vehicles on that road daily, many of them trucks, but “a more accurate representation of traffic numbers will be available after the first year,” Carson said.
Those figures don’t necessarily mean Scott’s rejection of the high-speed rail funds will lead to disaster.
“As a Floridian and Hillsborough County resident, it was exciting thinking about Tampa being part of the first-in-the-country high-speed rail project,” said Steve Polzin, transit research program director at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. “It had folks energized. One could easily imagine the high-speed train as a replacement Florida icon for the space shuttle.”
“As a transportation analyst, and stepping back from the emotions…this rejection does not seal the fate of the I-4 corridor for eternity. Rather it postpones the decision of what to do next.”
Polzin believes the existing right-of-way that was going to be used for high-speed rail should remain intact.
“Auto, truck, bus and rail options might be future alternatives when and if a compelling need, a funding strategy and political will for additional capacity in this corridor materialize,”he said.
It might turn out that a subsequent generation of high-speed rail technologies might be of lower cost and be more energy efficient, making folks pleased thata high-speed rail decision was delayed, he said.
New technologies and fuels for cars and trucks are possible, while on-line shopping, webinars in place of meetings, telecommuting aided by low cost technology all soften travel demand. Even high-definition television is being suspected of reducing demand to travel to sporting venues, Polzin said.
Rail, he said “is the right answer in some cases and not in others.”