So long, suckers.
That was one, exhilarating impression Thursday from a tour of the toll lanes in the middle of Interstate 4 that are getting finishing touches before they finally open for traffic early next year.
As a Florida Department of Transportation tour bus rolled west at highway speed on the toll lanes through the curves crossing over Princeton Street and Ivanhoe Boulevard near downtown Orlando, the nearby traffic on I-4′s westbound, free lanes was behaving as it typically does – bogging to a crawl.
The DOT bus sailed swiftly by the congestion, a rolling gesture of “so long,” as if the cars were frozen in time.
DOT hopes that kind of traffic backup, at least in the middle of the day and outside of rush hour, becomes a relic from the past once the toll lanes are in use.
“I really do think it’s going to help,” said Kim Montes, spokesperson for the Florida Highway Patrol. “I think if everybody takes their time and plans out how they are going to use these lanes, I do think it’s going to relieve congestion.”
After seven years of construction – which may have seemed twice that long for drivers putting up with construction zones amid the region’s busiest road – the $2.4 billion remake of 21 miles of I-4 in Orange and Seminole counties is drawing to an end.
The project has been a marathon of traffic cones, shifting lanes and rough driving. The project incurred staggering cost overruns, five worker fatalities and delays adding up to more than a year behind schedule, all coming as part of the state’s most costly road job ever. The free lanes opened a year ago.
Chances are the regrets over the project will fade with access to the toll lanes, which DOT likes to call “express” lanes and uses that reference on a lot of signage.
DOT is saying for now that the toll lanes will open in the “first quarter” of 2022. In the meantime, the department has launched a campaign to let drivers know that the overhauled stretch of highway will be an adventure and there’s going to be a learning curve.
The redone roadway consists now of a separate highway made of toll lanes, with two in each direction, nestled within a bigger highway of free lanes, typically with three in each direction.
The overall width feels enormous, as wide as football field is long.
In each direction there are nearly 10 entrances and 10 exits from the toll lanes.
DOT strongly suggests that drivers take a look at a how-to website for the toll lanes at i4express.com
The transportation department wants drivers to figure where to get on the toll lanes and where to get off long before they arrive at the new I-4.
The toll lanes will rely only on transponders, such as DOT’s SunPass and the Central Florida Expressway Authority’s E-PASS.
There are no lanes for tollbooth that will take cash. There will be no pay-by-plate tolls that utilize cameras and automation to send drivers a bill in the mail.
DOT anticipates that some drivers will stray accidentally onto the toll lanes without a transponder. Doing so will result in a $25 fine, though fines won’t start immediately.
“Don’t panic,” Montes said, speaking for the drivers who make that mistake. “Don’t stop and don’t turn around. Drive to the next exit.”
Troopers will not enforce tolls, Montes said, but will issue speeding tickets on the toll lanes.
Initially, tolls will be low. Driving the entire length westbound will cost $3, while the slightly longer eastbound route will cost $3.50.
For a period of time not yet determined, DOT will study traffic patterns on the toll lanes. Uncertain of how popular the lanes will be with drivers, the department has installed a system that is something like radar to count cars when the toll lanes are open.
Eventually, toll rates will be adjusted several times a day according to traffic volumes. More traffic will bring higher tolls.
Toll fluctuations will be done according to a computer program, with a human keeping tabs on it “for a good customer experience,” DOT spokesperson Jessica Ottaviano said.
Previous comments by DOT officials suggest the permanent tolls will be in line with those along State Road 408.
The toll lanes were constructed with concrete. The general, free lanes are paved with asphalt.
The contrast works to aesthetically seclude the toll lanes. Vanilla-colored walls 5 feet high in most places and higher in other places also work to render a sense of isolation on the toll lanes, which has concerned DOT.
A driver in a crash may find little for reference points and be effectively lost. DOT’s answer is to imprint light poles with unique numbers, which are to be conveyed to a 9-1-1 operator.
The area’s emergency responders already have determined which entrance or emergency gate is closest to the number.
Jeremy Dilmore, a DOT program manager, said the technology embedded in the overhauled I-4 has been in use at other Florida roads. “The technology is tried and true,” he said.