OCALA — In mid-2016, a regional task force that spent almost two years exploring ways to improve safety on a crowded Interstate 75 decided to take a conservative approach: make changes to the highway rather than build or expand other roads.
Then Hurricane Irma blew into Florida and thousands of people trying to flee its path got stuck, many of them in Ocala and points north and south. Now, a new road with a potential route through Marion and Alachua counties may be back on the table, if not exactly speeding ahead.
"I think they are going to do it despite any concerns by the locals. The locals told them they didn't want it," said Alachua County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson. "I think between the desire to open up rural areas for development and the desire for evacuation routes — and the fact that the interstates are jammed — they are going to do it."
Florida Department of Transportation chief planner Jim Wood said two studies are now under way, and that any potential new limited access road is a long way off.
One study by DOT centers on future expansion of I-75. The other, by Florida Turnpike Enterprise, explores lengthening the Suncoast Parkway into Citrus and Marion counties — a road that is called the "Coastal Connector."
Both studies should be complete by year's end. Turnpike Enterprise is a separate business unit of DOT that oversees the turnpike and toll road system.
The efforts gained new attention on Feb. 2, when Gov. Rick Scott issued a set of directives aimed at easing evacuations. They include more traffic cameras and signs on I-75 north from Ocala, but don't call for new highways. Instead, Scott has called for evaluation of fuel services along evacuation routes, for work on Florida's Turnpike, and for wider shoulders on some south Florida interstates. At his direction, the state Department of Transportation presented a report and list of recommendations concerning emergency evacuations.
Wood said there are no plans yet to extend the Suncoast Parkway into Alachua County or to designate and improve an alternative corridor to I-75, such as U.S. 301. But something will need to be done.
"One of the big challenges with I-75 is that when we need it most is when we have the challenges — seasonal conditions, (University of Florida) game days, a whole series of things. That is when we need to be considering the idea of an alternative reliever," Wood said. "We are continuing to look at I-75 and what we can do there. But the Turnpike Enterprise is also doing a study that looks at a connection from Suncoast Parkway to I-75 in Citrus and Marion counties."
Evacuation problems with Irma, which hit the Keys on Sept. 10 and traveled up the Florida peninsula, are being cited as the reason a new road is needed.
More than 6.5 million Floridians heeded warnings to evacuate. Many of them were Gulf Coast residents who headed north on I-75. It became so crowded that the state allowed motorists to drive in the emergency lanes to try to keep traffic moving.
Some couldn't outrun the storm, ducking off the interstate and into shelters in Marion, Alachua and other northern counties. Gas shortages, experienced both before and after the storm, compounded the problems.
The Florida House of Representatives created a select committee on hurricane response and preparedness. Its final report was issued Jan. 16 and includes a recommendation to extend the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia state line.
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DOT communications director Dick Kane said the agency is reviewing the House recommendation.
The Suncoast Parkway starts in north Tampa and ends at U.S. 98 in northern Hernando County.
However, a 13-mile expansion to State Road 44 in Citrus County is funded and construction is set to start this year. An additional 14-mile expansion is planned but not funded.
Wood said the expansion study will explore routing the parkway into Marion County, where it would link to I-75.
But that would not ease I-75 traffic in Alachua County, where many residents use the interstate as a speedier way to get around city streets.
If the Suncoast Parkway is eventually extended into Alachua County, a potential path could be between Jonesville and Newberry. It could link with I-75 in Alachua.
That route was discussed by the regional I-75 task force and generated opposition. Another potential route along U.S. 301, which includes a stretch through Hawthorne, was also discussed.
An I-75 master plan update completed in August states that short- and long-term increases in capacity are needed. Improvements that can be made quickly include a road ranger service patrol to keep traffic flowing more smoothly in construction zones or during incidents, better coordination of traffic lights at I-75 interchanges, and enhanced transportation management operations.
Wood said trying to turn roads that parallel I-75 — U.S. 301, 41 and 441 — into highways capable of diverting traffic off I-75 is not feasible. The improvements would cause significant social, cultural and natural impacts and would require changes to local comprehensive plans.
The updated master plan makes no mention of a completely new road, but Hutchinson, the Alachua County commissioner, said he believes the state is beginning to make plans for it to pass through his county.
Selection of a route will take into consideration environmental and other impacts but ultimately, the county would be powerless to keep a new road out.
"It's very hard to tell the state 'don't put a road here' if they really want to put a road here," Hutchinson said.