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MetroPlan Orlando drops effort to block express toll lanes on S.R. 417 in Seminole

MetroPlan Orlando drops effort to block express toll lanes on S.R. 417 in Seminole
METROPLAN Orlando on Wednesday dropped its effort to block the FDOT and Florida Turnpike from building express toll lanes on State Road 17 in Seminole County. (George Skene / Orlando Sentinel)

MetroPlan Orlando's board dropped its effort Wednesday to block the Florida Department of Transportation and Florida Turnpike Enterprise from moving forward with a plan to build express toll lanes on an existing toll road in Seminole County.

While several members of the regional transportation planning board said they oppose the concept of "a toll within a toll," Board Attorney Steve Bechtel advised them that it was simply too late to stop the $125 million project, which is scheduled for construction this summer. The FTE has asked MetroPlan to delay the construction schedule by two months, effectively moving it into fiscal 2017.

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"If you don't approve this, it would not stop the project," Bechtel said.

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. Those managed lanes would utilize "dynamic tolling," meaning the toll rate would increase during peak traffic periods.

Seminole County Commissioner Bob Dolari led an effort to remove the project from MetroPlan's Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). The thinking was that the state agency can not utilize federal highway dollars for any project that's not included in the TIP, but Bechtell said only the FDOT has the legal authority to remove a turnpike project from the plan.

And Turnpike Executive Director Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said the state tolling agency doesn't use federal fundings. "We live and die by our tolling revenue."

She also reminded board members that they had approved the project a year ago. Although express lanes are becoming increasingly common on the interstate highway system, only one toll road in Puerto Rico currently uses such a system on a toll road.

The Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority built 11 miles of elevated, reversable lanes on one of its toll roads in 2006, but that agency charges the same tolling rates on its express lanes.

"It is difficult to be the first to try something new, and putting an express lane in a toll facility, least in the continental United States, is a bold step for the state of Florida," she said. "But what I promise you is there are many states that are following in that bold step and looking and watching to see how successful it is here."

Several board members said they are philosophically opposed to an express lane project but accepted that they were too late to stop it.

"I always felt like we as a board don't have standing in the courts to interfere with Turnpike," Kissimmee Mayor Jim Swann said. "I don't see this doing anything except damaging the reputation of this organization. If we made a mistake, we've got to own up to it and move forward."

The MetroPlan vote leaves one avenue for local officials to stop the project. The Central Florida Expressway Authority has been negotiating with FDOT to buy the 417 or swap that segment of the toll road for a portion of the Beachline Expressway (S.R. 528).

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.

If the two agencies can agree on a road swap, the CFX could stop the express lane project on the Seminole Expressway. In a March 4 letter to Seminole County Commissioners, Boxold wrote that "our discussions with CFX on a potential exchange or swap continue and we are hopeful that a mutually beneficial agreement can be reached."

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at lkinsler@GrowthSpotter.com or (407)420-6261, or tweet me at @LKinslerOGrowth. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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