ACROSS FLORIDA — Dorian was only a distant tropical storm Tuesday when more than 100 government officials, transportation and land use planners, business and agricultural representatives and environmentalists gathered at the Tampa Convention to launch a plan to build three new toll roads in Florida.
Nevertheless, the storm’s ominous presence in the Atlantic reinforced the need for additional hurricane evacuation routes throughout a state that is attracting new residents at a rate of 906 every day.
Although Florida ranks 22nd in square miles (65,755 square miles) when compared to other states, it’s unique in that the entire state is a peninsula with a limited number of interstates connecting Florida to its neighbors.
In all, Florida has five primary interstate highways, nine auxiliary interstates and 10 toll roads.
Transportation planners say that’s insufficient for a mass evacuation of the state.
This was obvious in 2017 when Hurricane Irma was moving toward Florida on a path that would take it across the state. Evacuations were ordered on both coasts, resulting in chaos.
Studies after the crisis recommended expanding the use of shoulder lanes on major interstates and improving fuel service to critical gas stations. But the studies also pointed out critical deficiencies in Florida’s ability to handle mass evacuations.
Streetlight Data Inc., a national company that provides transportation professionals with on-demand access to transportation data, did its own analysis of evacuation routes for natural disasters and found that Florida lacks critical evacuation routes in some areas to allow residents to flee from natural disasters.
StreetLight uses machine-learning algorithms to analyze data from millions of mobile devices to help city planners and businesses better track transportation patterns and understand the infrastructure needed to prepare for emergencies.
Among the 100 American communities with the most-constrained evacuation routes, 20 are in Florida and 14 in California, according to the report released Aug. 26.
The evacuation-route study analyzed 30,000 U.S. areas with populations under 40,000.
Evacuation-route risk was determined by what percentage of the area’s population uses one main exit for daily vehicle trips, factoring in the number of other potential exit routes. For the areas with highest risk, a large percentage of drivers use only one evacuation route although others may exist (including highways, dirt roads and ferries).
Ranked 4, 5 and 6 on Streetlight Data’s list are Hutchinson Island South, Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach, all towns with access via a single bridge.
North Bay Village ranked 11, South Beach 13, Immokalee 16 and Siesta Key 20.
“Even if there are seven or eight ways out of a lot of small towns, everyone prefers one, which is fine on a typical Tuesday but not if there’s an evacuation,” StreetLight Chief Executive Officer Laura Schewel told Bloomberg. “If everyone chooses to evacuate using one road it can be a serious problem.”
An interactive map the researchers built to show off the data reveals why inland communities like Immokalee in Collier County are also evacuation challenged.
With more than 24,000 residents Immokalee has only four main exits. During an evacuation, the main exit would get 58 percent of the traffic, the researcher found.
The analysis highlights that people’s habits push them toward certain roads, which can be mitigated in advance, according to Schewel.
The Florida Department of Transportation has been working on such mitigation plans.
In 2005, Florida developed a plan for the Florida Intrastate Highway System identifying routes and plans that could be used for mass evacuations, including the use of shoulders and contraflow (reverse lane) plans.
It included the following plans:
Additionally, Florida has spent close to $1 billion to deploy intelligent transportation system technology to enhance highway operations. As a part of that effort, the state began using TMC Software (SunGuide). When activated during emergencies, this single platform enables the state to share controls of cameras and other devices in real-time.
Nevertheless, only so much mitigation can take place given a limited transportation system in a state where the population is growing by 330,605 people a year.
That’s one reason Thonotosassa Republican Florida Sen. Tom Lee championed passage of the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance plan to build three new toll roads in Florida.
Introduced by Bradenton Republican Senator Bill Galvano, the measure passed during the 2019 legislative session.
“This legislation is a long-term investment that will provide numerous benefits to our state infrastructure,” Lee said. “Regional connectivity not only enhances trade and tourism, but also mitigates congestion and provides additional evacuation routes.”
The M-CORES Program focuses on three corridors:
The law stipulates that the road projects must begin by Dec. 31, 2022 and open to traffic no later than Dec. 31, 2030.
In the meantime, residents will have to rely on the existing transportation system for large-scale evacuations.
Florida Toll Roads
Florida Primary Interstate Highways