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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 67 · No. 2 > State-of-the-Art Toll Road

September/October 2003
Vol. 67 · No. 2

State-of-the-Art Toll Road

by Raymond A. Ashe, Max D. Crumit, and Kevin M. Hoeflich

Map of Florida state, city of Tampa identifiedFlorida's new Suncoast Parkway is designed for minimum impact on the environment and maximum use by nonmotorized traffic.

Leading the procession during  the opening day ceremonies for Florida's new Suncoast Parkway in February 2001 was a lemon-yellow Model A truck built in 1929. On each of the antique cab doors was a neatly stenciled "DOT 1," standing for the Florida Department of Transportation. The restored truck, its chrome headlights and front bumper gleaming brightly in the Florida sun, was a shining symbol of the past riding proudly on a roadway planned with maximum environmental sensitivity for the transportation needs of the future.

The highway is a new-alignment, 68-kilometer (42-mile) toll road running north-south from the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area. The tollway reflects careful environmental planning in every aspect, from project management to roadway design. A state-of-the-art commitment to minimize environmental impact is reflected by the mitigation efforts: preservation of 8,100 hectares (20,000 acres) of conservation land and a long bicycle trail that parallels the parkway.

2 bicyclists on a trail with sunset in the background
A Florida sunset silhouettes bicyclists on the trail that parallels the Suncoast Parkway.

Covered in Superpave™ —a new design system used to produce materials that will stand up better to traffic loads and the environment to provide for long life—and designed to accommodate the Florida DOT's recently developed SunPass¨ system for electronic toll collection, Florida's new $517-million Suncoast Parkway resulted from a highly successful partnering process. The partnership facilitated the applications for construction permits, developed an impact-mitigation strategy that meets or exceeds even the most stringent expectations, and created an integrated design protocol that incorporates the first public biking trail in the State built along a major limited-access highway corridor.

The Need

The parkway has been high on the list of transportation needs in the Tampa-St. Petersburg region since at least the mid-1970s, when continued population growth and traffic congestion first was noted in planning studies. Currently, the parkway is expected to carry 120,000 vehicles per day by 2010, the majority generated by the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area.

Tampa-St. Petersburg, a dynamic growth center whose regional economy shows no signs of diminishing, is home to three international deepwater ports and three international airports. The Port of Tampa is the seventh largest in the Nation, conveying more tonnage than all other Florida ports combined. Tampa International Airport has been identified as the third fastest-growing airport in the country.

A Mandate for the Future

Any transportation agency attempting to build a considerable length of new-alignment highway anywhere in the Nation is likely to encounter environmental sensitivities along the way. In this case, multiple sets of environmental challenges emerged when Florida's toll agency proposed building limited-access roadway requiring a 122-meter (400-foot) right-of-way through three Florida counties: Hillsborough, Pasco, and Hernando, in order south to north. Locals frequently refer to the area as "The Nature Coast."

The Florida DOT conducted the first corridor and environmental studies in 1988 and presented a preferred alignment for the proposed Suncoast Parkway in 1992 at a series of public hearings. The route would run through a variety of landscapes that include urban and suburban areas, sparsely inhabited open land, and conservation zones.

The State's toll agency, the Florida DOT Turnpike Enterprise, operates as an entity within the Florida DOT and was established in 1957 to build highways by issuing public bonds and collecting tolls to contribute to their repayment. The toll agency currently manages nearly 805 kilometers (500 miles) of roadway throughout the State. Turnpike Enterprise officials and the in-house consultant's staff managed the design of the Suncoast Parkway project collaboratively, with help from consultants representing a variety of disciplines. Collaboration among all participants and stakeholders was critical to the project's significant environmental achievements.

The timing of the project also was a major factor. Construction that precedes major regional development by several years naturally reaps the benefit of relatively stable prices for land acquisition. At the same time, Florida law demands that all highways built by the toll agency pass a revenue-projection test to meet repayment expectations in the 15 years after construction.

Proposing a Partnership

In the earliest stages, the designers made two significant decisions. The first was to divide the proposed highway into six contiguous segments so that six individual consultants could be assigned the design work for each segment, thereby working concurrently and more expeditiously. The second decision was to create an extended partnership to address the project's environmental aspects. To maintain a uniform approach, a single environmental consultant coordinated all permitting efforts with the partnership.

Pedestrians on recreational trail
Pedestrians enjoy the recreational trail west of the highway's right-of-way. The trail is buffered from the roadway and includes a variety of interpretative rest areas and trailheads that connect it with other recreational resources.

 

Segment of the Suncoast Parkway
The success of the Suncoast Parkway was due mainly to stakeholders working together "in a spirit of trust and cooperation toward preserving the balance between Florida's environmental protection objectives and the State's transportation needs." One segment of the parkway is shown here.

Borrowing from the world of construction contracting, project managers decided on a form of partnering that would involve all those with a stake in the environmental issues. The Florida DOT had never attempted this kind of partnering process before. To help ensure success, the Turnpike Enterprise hired a local consulting firm to oversee the environmental planning and permitting. The project coordinator, John Post, currently is the environmental administrator with the Turnpike Enterprise and is a former employee of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, a State agency with jurisdiction over the Parkway project.

One reason that Post asked to be assigned to the project was the unique approach it promised. "This was totally different from any of the projects I'd seen coming from the Florida DOT when I was with the Water Management District," Post says. "In the end, it turned out to be a truly productive process, one that helped us come up with the best-of-all-possible solutions instead of just the good-enough solutions."

Fourteen Agencies Sign On

With the first partnering meeting scheduled for November 1993, the project managers made another decision that proved crucial. They used a professional facilitator from the Florida DOT with no significant environmental background to lead the quarterly meetings and keep tabs on the process as it evolved. Following a 3-day seminar to familiarize everyone involved with the basics of how the group process would work, the participants produced a partnering agreement affirming each member's commitment "to work together in a spirit of trust and cooperation toward preserving the balance between Florida's environmental protection objectives and the State's transportation needs."

The signers of this document represented 14 entities including the toll agency, consultants, Federal and State agencies (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southwest Florida Water Management District, Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission), and the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization founded to facilitate the purchase of private land for public ownership. Joining this group soon after the document was signed were representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Concrete wall with a graphic logo of native tall grass
To establish a unified identity for the road, the landscape architects created this graphic logo based on Andropogon ternarius (bluestem), a native tall grass that grows in the meadows and pinelands of Florida's Gulf Coast.

The group quickly established priorities, identifying the Suncoast Parkway as a highway project that would be "environmentally engineered" to the greatest extent possible, meaning that environmental considerations would lead all other considerations in the design process. First consideration would be given to avoiding adverse effects where possible, with second consideration given to minimizing impact. As a last resort, mitigation strategies would offset adverse impacts that were either unavoidable or resistant to minimization.

A Plan from the Beginning

The process began with almost no hitches, as even the most skeptical participants not only approved of the content of the proceedings, but also appreciated the opportunity to have their concerns fully aired and considered. "Large, new roads are just not something we generally recommend," says Jim Beever, a biological scientist with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, an agency that had aired strong objections during the project's early phases. "But you could really appreciate that both the DOT and the consultants were willing to listen to problems with the project design as we saw them, and that they were willing to enter into a real dialogue on how to address them."

Almost as soon as the dialogue got underway, the broad outlines of an overall strategy began to emerge. Acknowledging the project ultimately would result in significant impacts requiring mitigation, land available for use in mitigating adverse impacts was identified and two large parcels singled out.

One piece, roughly 1,460 hectares (3,600 acres) in size, was used mainly as a cattle ranch. Because the land was relatively undisturbed from its natural state, minimal environmental restoration or enhancement was necessary. The parcel had been purchased by the Trust for Public Land in anticipation of the Suncoast Parkway project. The other parcel, roughly 2,715 hectares (6,700 acres), would prove to be slightly more problematic but ultimately represented a key piece in the puzzle. It had been approved for development, but very little environmental restoration or enhancement was necessary. Ultimately it became the subject of extended financial negotiations.

Both parcels are located in wetlands at the southern reach of the project, crossed by two meandering rivers. The Pithlachascotee and the Anclote run east to west only 3-5 kilometers (2-3 miles) apart through floodplains and dense swamps.

A Virtual Island of Conservation

The two mitigation properties adjoin the already-existing Starkey Wilderness Area, a 4,050-hectare (10,000-acre) natural preserve managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. In addition to agreeing on the mitigation plan as a centerpiece of the environmental strategy, the parties agreed that the two pieces of land, once acquired, would be turned over to the Southwest Florida Water Management District for long-term habitat management to make up an area roughly 16 kilometers (10 miles) deep and 11 kilometers (7 miles) wide. With the Suncoast Parkway as the eastern boundary, the mitigation properties and the existing preserve would constitute a valuable buffer on the rim of the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area.

"As Pasco County and west central Florida are developed to urban uses," the final environmental impact statement submitted to the Federal Highway Administration explains, "this park may represent a virtual island of natural areas set aside for the preservation of fish, wildlife, and native Florida vegetation. The environmental value of such a large tract of conservation land cannot be overemphasized."

In total, the environmental strategy also included the enhancement of wetland habitat for wading bird species like the sandhill crane and wood stork, both protected species, and upland preservation for the indigo snake, a federally protected species, and the gopher tortoise, protected by the State of Florida. Wildlife crossings also constitute a significant aspect of minimizing environmental impact. Significant known populations of the Florida black bear, for instance, inhabit the area near the right-of-way.

Partnership Reaps Benefits

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the partnering process is the changed attitude expressed by participants on both sides of the permitting table. Mike Nowicki, a senior project manager who has been with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since 1980, agrees. "I'm not sure a 20,000-acre [8,093-hectare] wildlife preserve would ever have come out of the Suncoast Parkway project without the partnering process. What really changed everything was getting a chance to meet on a regular basis with the project managers and their consultants. The positive attitude they showed in addressing our concerns made the whole permitting process much less contentious and far shorter than it might have been."

Another advantage of the proactive partnerships was the reduction of cost achieved by including permit considerations in the earliest stages of the design process.

The same eagerness to address environmental considerations permeated every detail of the design, thanks to a three-ring binder of guidelines developed by the contractor's landscape architects and distributed to all of the consultants.

Segment of the recreational trail
The designers of the roadway based their aesthetic guidelines on the premise that all scenic highways blend with the topography and the natural environment. This photo shows one segment of the recreational trail.

Recreation a Part of Design

Looking at a variety of older and newer highways around the country, the designers of the Suncoast Parkway were inspired by the tri-State Blue Ridge Parkway, Westchester Parkway and Northway Parkway in New York, the George Washington Parkway and I-66 in Virginia, I-75/I-85 in Georgia, I-70 and E-470 in Colorado, and I-285 in California, among others.

A central component of the design is a 3.7-meter (12-foot)-wide recreational trail on the west side of the highway's right-of-way. The trail is buffered from the roadway as much as possible and includes numerous rest areas, a series of trailheads connecting with local recreational resources, and a variety of river, wildlife, and wetland interpretative and viewing areas. Conceived as a recreational resource for local residents adjoining the parkway and maintained with county resources, the Suncoast Trail already has been nominated as a Millennium Trail by the White House Millennium Council and as a National Recreation Trail by the National Park Service.

Extension of the Environment

Special attention is paid to the subtleties of landscape design and the specific treatment of natural amenities, including selective clearing and the retention of existing features in the highway medians. The design treatment includes the use of light-brown concrete, dark brown guardrails and light posts, brown monotube roadway signs, and black vinyl-covered fencing. At wildlife crossings, a specially designed high wildlife fence topped with outriggers extends in a funnel shape along the highway perimeter to help direct animals toward openings created for them beneath the roadway.

The effect of driving on the Suncoast Parkway, especially in areas with views to the open landscape, is an unusual sense of transparency instead of the more-expected experience of a highway barrier between the motorist and the surrounding landscape. The guardrails, light posts, and road signs seem to disappear, leaving mainly the presence of the natural environment.

All land acquired to establish the Suncoast Parkway's right-of-way that resulted in small, unused lots after construction was sold later with prohibitions against erecting billboards and other signs in close proximity to the highway. This restriction helps ensure that this sense of harmony with the natural environment will be maintained on the Suncoast Parkway for years to come.


Raymond A. Ashe, Jr., is the manager of the Florida Turnpike Enterprise's Environmental Management Office and oversaw all aspects of the environmental permitting and mitigation on the Suncoast Parkway project.

Max D. Crumit, P.E., is a senior vice president with PBS&J and the firm's assistant national service director for transportation. He served as the program director for the firm's general consultant contract with the Florida DOT Turnpike Enterprise. Crumit was the chief project manager for the Turnpike Enterprise on the Suncoast Parkway.

Kevin M. Hoeflich, P.E., currently serves as the deputy program director for the PBS&J's general consultant contract with the Florida DOT Turnpike Enterprise. Hoeflich was a project manager for the Turnpike Enterprise on the Suncoast Parkway and also was responsible for the development of the project's aesthetic design guidelines.

For more information, contact Max Crumit at 800-284-5182 or mdcrumit@pbsj.com. Contact Kevin Hoeflich at 407-532-3999 ext. 3431 or kevin.hoeflich@dot.state.fl.us.

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