YULEE, Fla. - From a bird's eye view it looks like a cause - not an antidote - of traffic problems. But Florida Department of Transportation says the "diverging diamond interchange" is an ingenious solution and one that offers the rare combination of enhanced safety and efficiency.
"It looks confusing," FDOT spokeswoman Odette Struys acknowledged. "But once you actually drive the diverging diamond interchange, clearly marked striping and arrows will seamlessly guide you through what looks confusing at first."
It does look confusing. Very confusing. The first diverging diamond interchange on the First Coast is being built at I-95 exit 373, where the interstate connects with and crosses over A1A/State Road 200.
From above the stretch of A1A/200 looks like a braid of rope because instead of each direction of traffic traveling parallel and to the right of opposing traffic as usual, the sides actually swap while traveling underneath the Interstate.
"Scary!," said a woman named Karen to First Coast News just a few footsteps away from the construction, while looking at FDOT animated video depicting various viewpoints of what the finished product will be, expected in summer 2020.
"It does remind me of when I first pulled up to my first traffic rotary in New Jersey," said Mike while filling his tank at a nearby gas station. "I said, 'How do you know who has the right of way?,' he continues, "and I was told from locals, ‘Well, it’s the larger vehicle that takes the right of way’.”
In this case, might doesn't make right. In fact, left makes right ... er, right moves left if it's turning from eastbound onto the highway northbound, or westbound onto the highway southbound. If the words sound twisted, try watching this video for a beginner lesson!
SInce 2009, when the first diverging diamond interchange in the U.S. was built in Missouri, some 90 more have popped up, including Florida's first - a six-lane-per-side configuration in Sarasota that opened earlier in 2017. Odette Struys at the FDOT office in Jacksonville explains the design's key safety feature.
"A regular standard interchange offers about 26 different conflict points," he said. "The DDI drops that number from 26 to 14 conflict points, and that has been shown to reduce crashes by 50 percent."
Those conflict points include spots where traffic merges, crosses, or diverges direction with other vehicles. Struys explained that the concept originated in France, but has caught on in the U.S.
The choice of exit 373 as the first on the First Coast is puzzling to some.
"I don’t foresee this much volume of traffic here," Mike said while washing his windshield at the pump.
But Struys explained the location was chosen not because it's the busiest of intersections day-to-day, but because of safety during disasters.
"A1A State Road 200 in Nassau County serves as the major hurricane evacuation corridor for residents, businesses, and visitors to the entire area of Nassau County, from Amelia Island, Fernandina, Yulee, Callahan, Hilliard," Struys indicated.
Carol, meanwhile, can't get over the other-worldly looking concept.
"It does look strange, reminds me a little of California!," she said with a laugh.
But as she continues to watch the explanatory video, her apprehension seems to soften. Asked if she thinks she can handle it, she replied: "Yeah, as long as it's clearly marked."
...Something Struys assures will be the case.
"Once you understand how well-marked the entire intersection will be, it will feel seamless. It will be a good experience," she said, insisting that the diverging diamond is equally user-friendly and safe for bicyclists and pedestrians.
The project in Yulee carries a price tag of $40 million. FDOT said more diverging diamonds - specifically eight along State Route 23 - are planned, with construction to begin in 2019.
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