Ditch I-295 Tolls

I do not know what the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is thinking. In the brochure outlining the planned toll express lanes between San Jose Boulevard and Interstate 295, it seems to have forgotten there is a Mandarin. The express lane ends right at Interstate 95 on the east and between San Jose Boulevard and the Buckman Bridge on the west.

The design fails to do several things. If someone gets on at San Jose Boulevard going to Jacksonville International Airport, they must stay in the non-express lanes until they pass I-95. Eventually, this person would be able to use an express lane from 9B to J. Turner Butler Boulevard (JTB) and again from the Napoleon Bonaparte Broward Bridge (Dames Point) to I-95. Of course, if this is set up the same way as Mandarin, they would actually exit at Duval Road.

Who else is not served? People going from Orange Park to Southpoint will miss their exit to I-95. Anyone taking I-95 from points south to Orange Park and points west will still be stuck in the non-express lanes, with all the traffic from I-95 coming in from points north. Anyone taking the Buckman Bridge east and wanting to exit at San Jose Boulevard, Old St. Augustine Road, I-95 north or I-95 south can forget using the express lanes.

Who else is inconvenienced? Those taking the beltway on the way to Orlando or other points south may suffer the worst. If they miss the express lane signs and get trapped in the express lane, they suffer from multiple problems.

First, unless they have a Sun Pass transponder, they will have their license plate photographed. This will prompt a ticket in the mail with a demand for the toll plus a fine.

Second, they will see their exit and have no way over except through a paved shoulder separating the express lane and their exit. They will follow human nature and try to cross the shoulder and move onto the 
non-express lanes. If a police officer sees them cross the double white lines on the shoulder, that will mean a ticket. If they don’t get pulled over, they will need to move across three lanes of extremely heavy traffic. This sets up a scenario for possible fatal accidents at urban interstate speeds which can average close to 80 miles per hour.

Finally, if they don’t make their exit, they will exit at Philips Highway to make a turn-around that’s confusing even for local motorists. None of these possibilities will endear Jacksonville or the state of Florida to these travelers. In fact, travelers stuck in the express lanes or those commuters from Mandarin stuck in a traffic pattern that does not have ingress or egress points to the express lanes will not benefit, even if they’re willing
to pay extra.

The FDOT propaganda states that the cost is $115 million; it was recently reported that among state budget items, there is $92 million in the 2013-’14 budget to build these express lanes. This is a line item in the FDOT’s $8.3 billion budget. Money from the surplus in the state budget went into FDOT. It’s a good thing, because it also funded our part of the outer beltway, the I-95-to-JTB flyover and JAXPort. All are major benefactors of the new, improved FDOT budget.

While FDOT is fronting the monies for the project, it appears the state wants the money back over time, with interest in the form of tolls. It also appears the express lane design will preclude many commuters, capable of paying for the express lanes, from using them. This means less in tolls, as maybe 5 to 10 percent of the traffic is actually utilizing the lane.

We obviously need to do something to increase capacity along this section of I-295. The numbers used to support the express lane appear accurate: a capacity of 6,200 vehicles per hour at the current six lanes total; the 2012 traffic load was 7,340 vehicles per hour, and the 2035 estimated traffic load is 9,460.

The $115 million project includes widening the highway to the equivalent of five lanes in each direction, with inside and outside shoulders, as well as a shoulder separating the express lane from other travel lanes. The expansion includes a New Jersey-style barrier (a solid concrete barrier with an emergency lane next to it in place of a median) and involves land acquisition for construction of retention ponds. Finally, there’s a plan to add sound barriers along the residential sections of I-295.

All of the features beyond the toll readers are acceptable; though it would be better to go ahead and make I-295 five lanes each way (rather than put a paved median between the new and existing lanes). This would allow the southbound exit from I-95 to blend into I-295 westbound without the horrible afternoon traffic jam that now occurs almost daily.

The changes would allow for the two right lanes to exit from I-295 eastbound to I-95 northbound without clogging I-295’s inner three eastbound lanes. This allows the traffic to move better during morning rush hour.

Mandarin has a population of 60,110, according to Census data, and certainly tens of thousands of automobiles. All of us who live in this area would be denied access to the express lanes at any price. The idea of spending the same funds and having 10 lanes of traffic where we can merge safely as needed is a much better option than having an inaccessible express lane. As a Mandarin resident, I say drop the toll and express lane ideas and have the road function much better with 10 unrestricted traffic lanes.

Another issue with toll lanes is that we’re paying for lanes the federal government should pay for. We pay a federal gas tax and other taxes that the federal government transfers into its transportation fund. With the interstate designation, we qualify to have the federal government pay at least 75 percent of the cost of widening I-295. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority and the state of Florida should each pay 12.5 percent.

Under the normal funding formula, the federal government should pay $86.250 million, the state should pay $14.375 million and the JTA pay $14.375 million. This is within the budget of the state without throwing tolls into the picture. The JTA can come up with the funds if the Jacksonville City Council is bold and doesn’t cave to Mayor Alvin Brown on the 6-cent gas tax.

The JTA currently uses a part of the gas tax to pay for mass transit operating expenses, but that’s not the whole story. Some of the current $27 million raised is available for use to issue $120 million in needed bonds as Director Nathanial Ford stated at a recent meeting. What if we had another $27 million available?

We could pay for our local share of the project and for another one of similar cost. This would allow one or more projects per year with the local portion of up to $27 million. The state allows local governments to levy a gas tax of up to 12 cents per gallon. When renewing the current 6-cent tax, the City Council should approve an additional 6 cents. The cost to an average motorist is only an additional $36 per year.

Our state and local government should be bold and push the federal government for our share of funds to complete a vital interstate widening. They should also be bold enough to enact an additional 6-cent gas tax specifically set aside to pay JTA’s local share of federal projects.

Fouraker, in the banking field for the past 20 years, was previously a paralegal at a law firm specializing in municipal finance.