State Road 20 4-laning part of Florida wide road plan
This October, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) plans to let a contract to widen SR-20 from two lanes to four lanes from the intersection of Lake Shore Drive to Hawthorne. Many people who regularly travel in eastern Alachua County believe the widening to be a good idea, and most think this means only doubling the amount of pavement and perhaps widening the cleared right of way a few feet. Unfortunately, this is far from what has been planned.
The project is designated as part of the Florida Intrastate Highway System (FIHS), a web of high speed, controlled access highways crossing the state from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The FDOT plans call for a 65 mph divided highway, a 230 foot right-of-way, and an extremely wide median--64 feet throughout most of the project and 40 feet wide from Rochelle Road west to Lake Shore Drive.
Two new bridges over Prairie Creek are planned just north of the current bridge. FDOT maintains that they can not use the current bridge location as a crossing because the high design speeds require them to straighten out the curve to the west and they are not willing to move from the centerline that had been established for the project when the median width was 64 feet throughout the entire project. The gap between the new bridge spans as currently designed would be 24 feet, not 40 feet like the median directly east and west of the bridges.
The "Project Development and Environmental" (PD&E) studies by FDOT are old and inaccurate. In fact, the entire project was designated by FDOT to qualify for a "Categorical Exclusion" which allowed them to avoid doing an "Environmental Assessment" or an "Environmental Impact Statement" as might reasonably be expected. The basis of the exclusion included FDOT's contention that there would be no recreational impacts, no controversy about the project and insignificant noise impacts. Ironically, FDOT's conclusion came on the heels of the 1989 "Comprehensive Inventory of Natural Ecological Communities in Alachua County" which ranked Prairie Creek as #1 land to protect due in part to its recreational value and its superb connectedness to other natural areas--a connectedness which would be severed by an interstate-sized and interstate speed highway.
Since then, the natural resource investment in Newnans Lake and surrounding areas in the Orange Creek basin includes millions of dollars spent by the St. Johns River Water Management District and other agencies. Land just north of SR20 competed statewide for Conservation and Recreations Lands (CARL) funding for acquisition, and was so highly ranked as important for habitat and water quality that purchase is imminent. Wildlife, including black bear, travel from the Austin Cary Forest near Waldo, through the Gumroot Swamp on the north side of the Newnans Lake, and around the swamps on the east side of the lake, down banks of Prairie Creek and River Styx to Lochloosa Wildlife Management Area. The front bumpers of higher speed cars and trucks along SR-20 will likely collect plenty of "data" needed to plan future wildlife crossings.
Noise is another major problem with the planned project. The noise study performed during FDOT's Project Development and Environmental (PD&E) Study is so old that the Gainesville-Hawthorne Rail-Trail was not considered. Of the noise receptor sites examined, most approached or exceeded noise criteria for mitigation. In the noise report, FDOT dismissed three mitigation measures (eliminating trucks, realigning the highway, or constructing noise barriers) as impractical. A fourth and obvious solution was never considered--reduce the speed limit, especially at Prairie Creek, where recreational and eco-tourism values would be diminished.
In the recreational and wildlife area around Prairie Creek, the posted speed limit should not be any higher than 45 mph--the speed limit drops to 45 mph just westward at Lake Shore Drive anyway. The design speed, which is always 5-10 mph higher than posted, should be no more than 50 mph.
There are sensible alternatives to the planned intra-state highway that would meet the future transportation needs for the foreseeable future. One option would provide a third lane for passing. After all, irresponsible passing seems to be the largest complaint from citizens who regularly commute into Gainesville from communities to the east. This plan would alleviate the frustration felt by travelers who find themselves caught behind a "slow-poke" traveling at or below the speed limit and allow "zippier" commuters to pass safely. Unfortunately, this alternative would not meet with the FDOT plans to have a high-speed four to six lane highway all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
A second alternative would accommodate FDOT's desire for SR-20 to be part of the FIHS. In this alternative, the median width would be tapered up from the current 13 foot median at Lake Shore Drive eastward to a maximum of 22 feet throughout the first two to three miles of the project. By limiting the roadway to a 22 foot median, the light gap between bridge spans would be generous enough for people and wildlife, separation of eastbound and westbound traffic would be adequate, more area toward the lake would be saved for recreation, and the clearcut into the forested wetlands could be lessened. The new bridges on US-301 over Orange Creek near Citra have this exact profile in term of widths of travel lanes, shoulders, and a 5-foot light gap, all with a posted speed limit of 65 mph traffic. Also, the dual bridges should also be lengthened, especially on the east side, providing 50-60 feet horizontally of 8 foot vertical clearance. Concrete beneath the bridges should be minimized, and natural creek bank should be preserved as much as practical.
The FDOT has agreed to form a team for landscaping the area around Prairie Creek, but they don't seem to understand that the design team should be looking at integrated solutions to the problems created by this road. Instead of simply deciding what plants should be planted behind the guardrails, a landscape architect should, at minimum, be deciding noise mitigation strategies, parking for recreational use, canoe access to Prairie Creek and Newnans Lake, human- and wildlife-oriented areas, stormwater drainage, and buffers between recreational areas (rail-trail, Kate's, bank-fishing).
Some of the county commissioners have thanked FDOT for their concessions to date (raising and slightly lengthening the bridge for human passage beneath, narrowing the median to 40 feet and reducing the posted speed limit at Prairie Creek to 55 mph) and now want the road built as soon as possible to alleviate pressure from commuters east of Gainesville. However, the area cut by the road project is the jewel of eastern Alachua County, and deserves more careful design consideration. Will the people in Hawthorne, Interlachen, and Palatka do any less to protect their special areas when this road heads their way?
For more information, including maps of the site, see http://www.atlantic.net/~hornbeck or http://www.gators.net/sr20 or call 375-6694 or 371-6027.
Search | Archives | Calendar | Directory | About / Subscriptions |