110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
Pressure mounts to widen U.S. 17 north of DeLand
Wal-Mart distribution center near Crescent City is part of the discussion
By Al Everson
posted Jun 20, 2008 - 4:19:32pm
Although Florida lacks cash for roads, and even though the Florida Department of Transportation says widening U.S. Highway 17 north of DeLeon Springs is not funded for the foreseeable future, the idea is gaining attention.
Growth in the region, the need for hurricane-evacuation routes, and — not least — the prospect of a Wal-Mart distribution center near Crescent City, are creating pressure to widen the two-lane highway.
In any event, there is currently no definite plan to widen any piece of the roadway, according to Steve Homan, the director of public information for the Department of Transportation's District 5, headquartered in DeLand.
"I know nothing about it," he said. "I haven't seen an appropriation."
The two-lane road through rural Northwest Volusia and the southern part of Putnam County may become a more urban-like corridor in the years ahead, said U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park.
Mica, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, confirmed he is working to secure federal funding for the widening, and may seek to include it in an upcoming transportation bill.
"It takes several years for appropriations," Mica said. "Next year, we're going to do a highway bill."
The congressman said Putnam County officials contacted him to request federal funding for four-laning U.S. 17. The Putnam County Commission supports widening the highway to accommodate the anticipated high volume of truck traffic associated with the proposed $40 million Wal-Mart distribution center planned on a potato farm southeast of Crescent City.
Two lanes may not be enough
Wal-Mart proposes to develop an 880,000-square-foot warehouse and trucking complex on the farmland near the intersection of U.S. 17 and Clifton Road.
A Wal-Mart distribution center stocks and ships, by truck food, paper goods and other household merchandise to supply the company's Supercenters and Sam's Club stores over a wide area.
The project has been delayed because of lawsuits filed by opponents who claim it violates state growth-management laws. The suits will be tried in an administrative hearing; the date and place of the hearing hasn't been determined.
Volusia County officials have expressed concern about the large number of freight-laden semi-trucks that would enter and leave the distribution center.
Besides the compounded hazard to other motorists on U.S. 17 posed by an extra fleet of 18-wheelers, critics of the distribution center claim the trucks would endanger children making their way to Pierson and DeLeon Springs schools along the roadway.
Because of these concerns and others, Volusia County is seeking to intervene in the administrative-law case. The county filed a petition with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, raising the traffic issue.
The petition estimates the number of trucks coming from the Wal-Mart center into Volusia County will range "anywhere from 262 to 445 daily trucks." That projection is down sharply from previous estimates of 800 to 900 southbound semis per day on the narrow road.
A 2006 traffic count by the FDOT shows the average number of vehicles on U.S. 17 between the Volusia-Putnam County line and State Road 40 is 5,900 per day.
Even the more conservative estimate of 400-plus southbound semis from the Wal-Mart distribution center would push the average daily traffic count up to more than 6,300 on that portion of the highway.
Other factors at work for a wider road
Whatever happens with the Wal-Mart, that road is just heavily traveled," Putnam County Planning Director Lanny Harker said.
Harker said he often travels on U.S. 17, and the road may also be needed for evacuating coast dwellers before a hurricane strikes. State Road 40, Harker recalled, was heavily congested during the 2004 hurricanes.
The stretch of the highway in question extends from DeLeon Springs northward into Putnam County, but widening it may be divided into three projects: the segment between DeLeon Springs and State Road 40, the segment between State Road 40 and the Putnam County line, and the segment from the Putnam County line to County Road 309.
This portion of U.S. Highway 17 is within Mica's congressional district.
While the roadway is continuous, it is within two different Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) districts. Volusia County is in District 5, while Putnam County is in District 2.
FDOT's traffic data also show the average daily count of cars and trucks on the portion of U.S. 17 between State Road 40 and DeLeon Springs is 9,000.
That is not surprising, Volusia County Traffic Engineer Rick Prine explained, noting there is more traffic on the portion of the road closer to DeLand.
"There's a lot of housing on both sides of the road up there. Where are they going to shop? And a lot of the people have jobs in DeLand," Prine said.
Money is no object — there is none
The FDOT is completing an analysis of the effects of four-laning the 6.4-mile segment of U.S. 17 between DeLeon Springs and State Road 40, Homan said.
"That design is under way, but it is not funded for right-of-way acquisition or construction," he said.
The analysis is also known as a project-development and environmental — or PD&E — study. That study cost $700,000, Homan said.
Like Volusia County, the FDOT maintains a five-year road program to plan for and schedule upcoming projects. The state agency's current five-year planning horizon extends through 2013.
"Beyond that is pure speculation." Homan said.
What would be the expense of widening the road?
"To add a two lanes in an existing rural section would be about $5 million a mile," Homan said.
At that price, four-laning the 6.4-mile segment between DeLeon Springs and Barberville would cost more than $30 million.
The U.S. 17 project is only one portion of one road in one county in one part of the state, and state leaders are dealing with funding shortages and requests from localities from Pensacola to Key West and all points in between.
Even though a portion of the cost would be borne by the Federal Highway Administration, Mica said federal dollars would not cover the entire expense.
Funds for building or improving roads come from state and federal fuel taxes, and those revenues are flat or falling, as drivers facing $4-plus-per-gallon prices are beginning to drive less.
If or when the two-lane portion of U.S. 17 is ever widened, Mica explained, it would be a divided highway, with two northbound lanes and two southbound lanes separated by a median.
In other words, the road would look like other federal highways outside urban core areas, such as U.S. 17-92 between DeLand and Orange City, or U.S. 92 between DeLand and Daytona Beach.
Similarly, the prospects for four-laning the highway north of the Putnam-Volusia County line are cloudy, but some advance work on that project is already under way.
"Right now it is simply a study. They are looking at four-laning it. There is no money in the budget for the construction at this time," said Chris Farkas, a spokesman for the FDOT's District 2.
Nor is there money to buy the required right of way, he said.
The District 2 study focuses on a 5.4-mile segment between the county line and County Road 309 in Putnam, Farkas said. He added the big W may be a catalyst in accelerating the widening of U.S. 17.
"Wal-Mart is one of the driving factors, along with the growth in the area," he said.
From country to city?
If the rural stretch of U.S. 17 is four-laned, the area would likely take on more of urban look.
"If we build it, they will come," goes the famous adage. A new, improved and bigger road may draw traffic now using other north-south routes. Increased traffic may mean increased demand for service stations, more restaurants, more taverns, etc.
"It would have a significant impact on the roadway," Volusia County Planning Director Gregg Stubbs said. "You really wouldn't want to do that, to have strip commercial all the way. ... As far as the character changing, it will change the way it looks up there."
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