Roads of relief: Jacksonville under construction


As the old saying goes -if you want to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been. Right now we are in the midst of a boom of construction on our roads. A new expressway, rebuilding a bridge, creating a flyover and adding express lanes – just to name a few projects. All of it has created some headaches for commuters navigating the construction every day, but the building of roads is key to the growth of a city.

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Before we talk about the projects on our roadways presently, let’s take a look back at the pivotal projects that shaped the River City. Open the pages of history and in the black and white photos you’ll find our first road known as, Kings Road.

“It was a dirt road and it cut through a corner of what today would be recognized as Hemming Park, but it was the howling woodlands back then,” describes Emily Lisska with the Jacksonville Historical Society.

The road was made for ox-carts and pretty rough to travel, but it opened up the area to more settlers. As more people came, downtown Cowford (later renamed Jacksonville) began to form.

“The streets just cut right through the Kings Road,” tells Lisska.

Nowadays the sights and sounds are different, but the layout and names remain. Names like Monroe, Liberty and Adams that tell an early story of America. Then in early 1900’s came another big moment, construction of Atlantic Boulevard! A little two lane s-curving road, but the first road to go to the beach.

“That brought us what was known as the first highway in Florida, so very exciting. I don’t know if we would think of it that way today, but in 1910, they certainly did,” says Lisska with a smile.

With downtown growing and beaches finally accessible, there was still one hurdle left. Getting across the St. Johns River. People living in Jacksonville had to use ferries to cross before 1921, that is when the first bridge was built. It was the St Johns River Bridge, later named the Acosta Bridge, and it was a tolled bridge.

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Three transportation projects that took us from being a road less traveled to major city.

“Highway and construction through Jacksonville is integral to the history of this city,” explains Lisska.

Now the next chapter in our transportation story is being written.

Click here to visit Jacksonville Historical Society

First Coast Expressway

It is hard to grasp how big the First Coast Expressway is going to be. It is a massive project that could change the way people get from Clay County to Duval County.

“This is where it all starts, from here it goes 15 miles south into Clay County,” tells Mary Justino with FDOT.

The first half will connect Beaver Street to I-10, then down to Blanding Blvd. Justino says the benefits are three-fold: commuters get a faster route, it could alleviate congestion on Blanding Blvd and US-17 and it could open the door to more businesses.

“In the long run it is also going to benefit the economy in Clay County and businesses the chamber and other groups want to bring to the area,” tells Justino.

Back when it was announced the First Coast Expressway would be a tolled road there was pushback. Duval County voters got rid of tolls in 1989.

“The fact that it is going to be a toll road means the project could be accomplished years in advance than if it had been a regular project paid for by tax dollars,” explains Justino.

The price tag for the project is pretty big. The cost for this first half is around $208 million. Also, the old form of tolls with tolls booths is gone. Instead, get used to the term ‘gantry’.

“It is something you drive through and drive under, but there is no stopping and no exchanging of cash,” says Justino.

Drivers are charged via a SunPass or tolled by license plate and sent a monthly bill. Justino says for drivers leaving Clay County and headed toward I-10… the First Coast Expressway could shave 15-30 minutes off your commute and have a speed of 70 mph the whole way. There will also be local access roads available to residents that are free.

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The next phase of the First Coast Expressway, which won’t start construction until at least 2019, will connect Blanding Blvd all the way to I-95 and include a replacement of the Shands Bridge.

Parts of the First Coast Expressway will start opening in the summer or fall of this year, but the tolls will not go into effect until the entire stretch from Blanding Blvd to I-10 is open.

It is also important to note that this expressway will serve as an evacuation route. If there is an evacuation, tolls will be suspended.

For more information on the First Coast Expressway click here.

For information on how to purchase a SunPass click here.

JTB flyover

In the last decade, one area of Jacksonville that has exploded in growth is the Southside. Specifically around the St Johns Town Center and out JTB. What was once a simple interchange at I-95 and JTB is now overloaded with commuters every day, which turns into frustrated drivers

“It can be overwhelming at times, but FDOT really hopes this can alleviate a lot of that stress,” tells Bianca Speights with the Florida Department of Transportation.

In August of 2014, FDOT began construction on a massive flyover ramp from I-95 SB to JTB EB, eliminating the need to stop from one road to the next, is the signature piece of the project. Yet, there are also changes being made to JTB as it approaches I-95 to help eliminate the dangerous weave drivers have to do.

“We are also expanding and widening and reconstruction the on and off ramps at the interchange and we have also added some additional traffic signal signals and widened JTB WB,” tells Speights.

It’s hard to believe, but when J. Turner Butler Blvd opened in 1979 locals jokingly called it a ‘road to nowhere’. Even in a satellite picture from 1994 there isn’t much out JTB, just a few housing developments. That all changed with the development of the St Johns Town Center. Suddenly homes, businesses and apartment complexes were springing up at lightning speed. Leading to major congestion in what used to be a simple interchange. Once the project is done, the goal is simple.

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“People when they drive through here, they will feel a sense of ease, traffic moving freely and they can get where they need to go on time and safely,” says Speights.

Now with thousands of commuters going through the Southside every day, FDOT is trying to grow with the times. The $67 million project is set to open this summer as JTB seems to be coming “the road to everywhere”.

For more on the project visit here.

Overland Bridge

On January 14th of 2013, the Florida Department of Transportation began the $227 million project to replace a series of overpasses that carry traffic toward downtown. It is known as the Overland Bridge.

Replacing a bridge while traffic is still on it has not been an easy task, the traffic never seems to stop coming on the Overland Bridge. A sign of the growing amount of people in Jacksonville. With more people coming to downtown, FDOT says they had to make room for people to travel.

“If we did not do that, we would have a lot more complaints than we do now,” tells John Kemp, the Senior Project Engineer with Eisman & Russo, Inc.

Kemp and Ron Tittle with FDOT acknowledge it hasn’t been easy on drivers during the construction, but there is an end in sight.

“We should be able to finish this year and we are towards the end,” tells Kemp.

In the before and after renderings (see pictures), you can see the major changes. There is a smoother transition from I-95 SB to Atlantic Blvd and I-95 SB drivers now have an exit to Phillips Hwy and more lanes. On the I-95 NB side, in the before and after you can see more lanes and the dangerous weaving to get to the Main/Acosta Bridges exit is gone.

This original series of overpasses was built in 1959 and had been experiencing heavy wear and tear from increasing traffic, even at times holes appearing in the roadway. The gradual structural deterioration and increasing traffic were two of the reasons the bridge had to be replaced.

“We are trying to stay ahead of it [congestion], but as growth continues St. Johns County and Duval County, you are going to have to make room for people to travel,” explains Kemp.

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While construction is underway, the speed limit is 45 mph due to the tight construction area. Once the Overland Bridge project is complete, there is no more scheduled construction on the area south of the Fuller Warren bridge.

Express Lanes

How much is your time worth? If spending a few dollars could save you from sitting in congestion, would you pay it?

Express lanes are coming to I-295 and the first stretch is almost done. If you drive on 295 from the Buckman Bridge to I-95, you know it bottlenecks every morning during rush hour.

“Short story is, we are running out of room. We are running out of capacity,” tells Hampton Ray with the Florida Department of Transportation.

To keep commuters moving, FDOT is adding express lanes to sections of I-295.

“So these are dedicated lanes separate from general use lanes,” tells Ray.

He emphasizes that no lanes are being taken away from commuters, but rather the two lanes being added will be tolled.

Here’s how it basically works. As you approach the express lanes you will see signs telling you to get left if you want to use the lanes. There will be two express lanes on the left and three, free general use lanes on the right. They will be separated off by plastic delineators. In the express lanes there is no toll booth, so no stopping, drivers are charged through a SunPass. The price of the lanes will fluctuate, depending on the traffic flow. The minimum price is $.50, but FDOT says a maximum price has not yet been set since the lanes are not open yet to establish an average. If you are caught cutting in without a SunPass, the fine is $25.

“The more people in the lanes the more expensive it will be and the less people in the lanes, the less it will be,” explains Ray.

This is important, there is no exit until just before the I-95 exit or just before the Buckman Bridge. That means commuters can’t exit at Old St Augustine Road if they are in the express lanes. FDOT says the hope is to keep average speed during rush hour in the general use lanes above 20 miles per and in the express lanes above 45 miles per hour.

Giving drivers a choice and FDOT hopes it will help alleviate the congestion here as Jacksonville continues to grow. Look for the first express lanes between the Buckman and I-95 to be open in the fall of this year. The next spot from SR-9B to JTB will be done in the Spring of 2019.

FDOT says the end goal, years down the road, is for these express lanes to be on the entire loop of I-295.

For more on the Express Lanes project visit here:

For information on purchasing a SunPass visit here: