First Section of First Coast Expressway Nears Completion
The first three projects of the First Coast Expressway, near Jacksonville, Florida, represent a $208 million investment in the northernmost segment and are on track to finish by the end of 2017.
“This is an impressive project because of its design and scope,” says Mary Justino, Spokesperson for the Florida Department of Transportation. “A significant amount of planning and work took place before most of us in the community realized it was happening. Now the community can see it and is realizing what the benefits will be for them.”
FDOT has been planning this road for decades. Justino, a resident of Clay County, remembers going to a public meeting in the mid-1990s about the project.
“Things ebbed and flowed during the years,” Justino recalls. During the recession, “a major road project was hard to do.”
FDOT partnered with the Florida Turnpike Enterprise on the First Coast Expressway. FDOT is building the project. The Florida Turnpike is funding the project through the sale of bonds. The Turnpike will collect the tolls.
“It meant this project could get done 10 to 15 years sooner, and that’s because of the strength of the Florida Turnpike Enterprise,” Justino says. “They are in good standing and in the black on their other projects. It means they can go ahead and help a community like ours build sooner as opposed to much later.”
The limited-access expressway, in Clay County, will provide an alternative north-south route off Interstate 10. Population has increased substantially, from 190,814 people in 2010 to 205,321 people in 2016, with the projection that the population will increase to 294,000 by 2040. About 70 percent of Clay County residents commute into Duval County for work.
“It will provide a new, alternative route for those commuters,” Justino says.
Traffic congestion has increased during the years. FDOT expects drivers will save at least 15 minutes on average daily by using the expressway. The new highway also will make storm evacuations easier.
RS&H of Jacksonville designed preliminary drawings for the entire, three-segment, 46-mile project, stretching from I-95 in St. Johns County to I-10 in Duval County. The firm’s role as owner’s representative included concept development, cost estimation and procurement services. Its engineers prepared the request for proposals, preliminary plans and regulatory permits for the projects. Additionally, RS&H worked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to relocate more than 200 gopher tortoises within the project limits, an extraordinary effort for wildlife conservation in Florida.
Multiple Construction Contracts
Three contracts are under way. The first two contracts include a 14-mile segment from New World Avenue to SR 21, which began in 2013. The design-build team of Dragados USA and TY Lin International, both of New York, received the $161.8 million contract for these two design-build segments. The three current contracts include eight interchanges, 15 concrete bridges, seven tolling sites, new on and off ramps to and from Challenger and Discovery Frontage Roads and sound walls in residential areas. Completion is expected in late 2017.
“There was a lot of ground work, dirt work and paving delays due to run off,” Justino explains.
The projects incorporate the existing Branan-Field-Chaffee Road and new construction. The road will be four-lanes wide with room for six lanes. There are concrete bridges at each of the interchanges and one water crossing at Double Branch Creek.
The First Coast extension project, which connects I-10 and US 90, is scheduled for completion in September 2017, an early finish. It was scheduled to finish in spring 2018. J.B. Coxwell Contracting of Jacksonville holds the $45.8 million contract for this section of the project. The four bridges in this project include three concrete bridges and a steel bridge over the CSX railroad tracks.
“The extension of the First Coast Expressway to the north will provide access to I-10 from nearby distribution centers, businesses and residential areas along US 90,” says Morgan County with RS&H. “Construction of the interchange will reduce congestion through Baldwin, traffic using US 301 to access I-10 and at the I-10/Chaffee Road interchange. It will also allow better access and interaction with the Cecil Commerce Center. The interchange expansion includes one bridge crossing of I-10 and three bridge crossings of the CSX Railroad and US 90.”
The limited-access First Coast Expressway will use all-electronic tolling on the mainline. Automated tolling facilities will be mounted on overhead structures. Drivers will need a SunPass transponder device. Otherwise a toll-by-plate system will invoice drivers by mail if the SunPass Transponder is not detected. SunPass rates will be about 25 percent lower than the toll-by-plate rate, which will include a $2.50 administration fee. Existing frontage roads in Clay County and the stretch of expressway from New World Avenue north to I-10/US 90 in Duval County will not be tolled.
Once construction is complete, the First Coast Expressway will become part of the statewide Florida Turnpike system.
The First Coast Expressway will, ultimately, connect I-10 and Interstate 95, south of Jacksonville, Florida.
The $507 million segment two, from SR 21 to SR 16 by the St. Johns River in Clay County, is funded and is scheduled to begin construction in January 2019. FDOT currently is purchasing right of way for the 20-mile segment. The department estimates this segment will take four years to build.
The third segment includes replacing the Shands Bridge over the St. Johns River. It remains unfunded and is not in the FDOT’s five-year plan. Plans call for free access for local traffic on the new Shands Bridge. Plans for the new Shands Bridge structure feature a clearance of 65 feet, 20 feet higher than the current bridge and a benefit to marine traffic in the region.
The second segment of the First Coast Expressway will have four interchange locations, as currently planned. Clay County economic development officials expect activity hubs near the interchanges to result in more jobs and mixed-use development to the area. St. Vincent’s HealthCare in Jacksonville already has located a facility near the expressway route. The county is still accepting comments about the countrywide master plan and about development along the route. Stephanie Kopelousos, Clay County Manager, called the expressway a “game changer for the county” at a May summit.
“That demonstrates the partnership with the county,” Justino says. “Development is taking place around these activity hubs. There is a meaningful planning process going into each of these interchange locations, which will positively impact the community at each of those spots.”