The Florida Department of Transportation is moving forward with the bid process to hire a consulting engineer for the $125 million widening project on State Road 417 - even as it continues negotiations with the Central Florida Expressway Authority for the possible sale or swap of the toll road.
But the MetroPlan Orlando board could remove the project from its Transportation Improvement Program - effectively killing the state's plan to add higher-tolled express lanes on the existing toll road. Federal funding can't be used for highway projects that are not listed on the TIP.
Seminole County Commissioner Bob Dallari asked the MetroPlan board to pull the project from the TIP on Wednesday morning, but board members decided to wait until their March meeting to vote on the matter.
"We do have time," Dallari told GrowthSpotter on Thursday. "We continued it to the March timeframe in the hopes they can negotiate in good faith."
Dallari said he doesn't know if he has the votes to pull the project. FDOT Spokesman Dick Kane said MetroPlan Orlando added the 417 widening to the TIP in 2015. "We do not anticipate the project being removed from the TIP and will continue to pursue the improvements to the benefit of our customers," he said.
Kane also noted that traffic volume on that segment of S.R. 417 is up 14 percent over the past six months, compared to the same period last year.
The six-mile widening project extends from the Orange County line to S.R. 434, just south of Lake Jessup. It would involve the addition of two express lanes in each direction - a proposal that is widely opposed by local officials and transportation planners. Seminole County Commissioners have even written to Gov. Rick Scott asking him to intervene and stop the project.
"I don't want to have a toll road within a toll road," Dallari said. "It's ludicrous. It's true insanity."
The MetroPlan board also postponed the vote on a request from Florida Turnpike officials to add express lane projects on the Turnpike and on the Beachline Expressway (S.R. 528). The express lane project on the Turnpike from S.R. 528 to Osceola Parkway was budgeted $143 million for construction, but FDOT wanted to postpone it from June until August, moving it into Fiscal 2017.
"I am not supporting any project that has a toll within a toll," Dallari said. "They're out of their minds."
MetroPlan Spokeswoman Cynthia Lambert said Dallari wasn't the only board member with reservations about the state's widespread use of express lanes. "Several of them would like to at a future time have a better understanding of what the express lane vision is for the area," she said. "Several of them have issues with putting express lanes on toll roads."
The S.R. 417 project is scheduled for construction this summer, but CFX officials were surprised to learn that FDOT had launched the bidding process for the civil engineer/inspector this week. The bids are due Feb. 22.
"As far as we're concerned, we're trying to work through the issue and follow the direction of our board," Executive Director Laura Kelley said.
CFX offered to buy the state-owned sections of the 417 from the Turnpike. Kelley said her board wants to have juristiction over all the toll roads within the urban area, with exception to the main Turnpike. As it is now, the state charges a higher toll rate than the local expressway authority on portions of the 417 and the 528 that it controls.
FDOT Secretary Jim Boxold has told local officials the road isn't for sale, but the state would be willing to swap 18 miles of the 417 and 11 miles of S.R. 429 that the state owns for 23 miles the CFX owns of S.R. 528, which connects Interstate 4 with Cocoa on the east coast.
The two sides haven't been able to agree on a valuation methodology for the roads. "The key is coming up with a methodology," Kelley said.
That could be easier said than done. Kane told GrowthSpotter that CFX canceled meetings with FDOT in December and January, and has not accepted the invitation for another meeting. But Kelley said they have a conference call scheduled for Monday.
The next MetroPlan Orlando meeting is March 9, and the board is schduled to take up Dallari's motion regarding S.R. 417.
"They don't want it to come to the point where they feel like they have to remove it from the list," Lambert said. "They would rather see some kind of a deal worked out."