Where’s the traffic? New I-4 toll lanes in Orlando see light use

Lanes that opened three months ago were part of $2.4 billion overhaul of I-4 through downtown Orlando

SOUTH EOLA, ORLANDO, FLORIDA - 2019/01/23: City skyline and Lake Eola.

SOUTH EOLA, ORLANDO, FLORIDA - 2019/01/23: City skyline and Lake Eola. Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

A quartet of new Interstate 4 toll lanes in Central Florida are, so far, the roads less traveled. 

The lanes that opened three months ago through downtown Orlando aren’t crowded, even during the morning and evening peak drive times, when the free lanes often back up. But Florida Department of Transportation officials are pleased with the traffic attracted by the 21-mile stretch of pay-to-drive section known as the I-4 Ultimate. 

I-4, through downtown, typically hosts a total of 200,000 cars and trucks. But a little more than 15,000 vehicles are using the new toll lanes daily, FDOT says. More than $1.4 million in tolls were collected on what FDOT calls the I-4 Express lanes during March, the most recent month when statistics were available.

“The success of I-4 Ultimate and I-4 Express is not measured in a dollar amount, but in time saved by drivers, crashes prevented, and lives saved,” FDOT spokeswoman Jessica Ottaviano told City & State Florida in a written statement. The toll lanes were the lynchpin of a seven-year, $2.4 billion overhaul of I-4, running from close to the Universal Florida theme parks west of Kirkman Road, to east of State Road 434 in Seminole County. 

Among motorists not using the toll lanes is Jeff Morris, a paralegal who lives in DeLand in Volusia County. He used to work in downtown Orlando and commuted daily, most often on the SunRail train. He stopped when the Covid-19 pandemic hit two years ago, taking a job with a law firm that allows him to work from home. “I think it was a mistake from the outset (building the toll lanes),” he said. “It seems a little bit privileged to me.”

Some transportation experts question not only toll roads, but even widening highways at all. Transportation for America, a smart growth organization based in Washington, D.C., contends that most freeway expansions only offer congestion relief for a few years. Urbanized areas “expanding their freeways more rapidly aren’t necessarily having more success curbing congestion – in fact, in many cases the opposite is true,” says its report, “The Congestion Con: How more lanes and more money equals more traffic.”

That report argues that newly widened roads eventually attract additional traffic — called induced demand — that over time returns the corridor to as much congestion or more than it had originally.

“People think it should make sense (to widen roads). But it doesn’t make sense,” said Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America and a former acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The massive overhaul also streamlined an antiquated I-4 link with the busy State Road 408 toll road on the southwest edge of downtown, as well as numerous enhanced exit/entrance ramps. Those improvements, state transportation officials maintain, have cut congestion for all I-4 travelers – not just those paying the tolls – and increased average speeds in the corridor with a 60 mph posted speed limit.

It’s “exactly what express lanes are designed to do to help better manage congestion,” Ottaviano said. Right now, FDOT charges 50 cents per tolling segment, with six of those sections westbound and seven eastbound in I-4 Express lanes. That 50 cent toll is equivalent to a charge of 15 cents per mile.

If demand grows, FDOT will turn to a variable toll structure, with rates rising as more vehicles turn to the toll lanes to flee congestion in the free lanes. FDOT has envisioned per-mile rates up to 53 cents in Orlando, though a 10-mile tolled stretch of I-95 in South Florida has had fees range from a low of 25 cents a mile to as much as $7.10 a mile. 

But, Ottaviano said, I-4 Express is “not about being a revenue source. It was about improving mobility and safety and that is exactly what we are seeing.”

Dan Tracy was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel for 35 years, covering numerous beats, including transportation, City Hall, state and local politics, business and long-term projects, and is an expert in the Central Florida scene.

NEXT STORY: Greenhouse gases get attention as Florida fights climate change

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