A Tight Squeeze: Florida’s Turnpike Widening from Atlantic Avenue to Boynton Beach Boulevard

Encompassing 312 miles of maintained roadway, Florida’s Turnpike Mainline (State Road (SR) 91) is a north-south toll road running through 11 counties between Central Florida (Wildwood) and South Florida (Florida City). An average of 1.8 million motorists traverse the user-financed, limited-access toll road daily.

In September 2015, Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise (FTE) awarded GAI Consultants (GAI) the Florida’s Turnpike Widening from Atlantic Avenue to Boynton Beach Boulevard design project in Palm Beach County. GAI is performing roadway, structures, and supporting design on this $9-million design project to widen SR 91 from six to eight lanes. We sat down with GAI’s Deputy Project Manager John Saunders, PE to learn more about this effort—highlights from our conversation are below.

What’s unique about Florida’s Turnpike Widening project?

PowerPoint PresentationJohn: This five-mile section of the Turnpike was originally four lanes. In 2008, it was widened to six lanes, with accommodations for eight total future lanes. Since the last widening, deviations in FTE policy have occurred that must be accommodated. Essentially, any future roadway construction must avoid the gas lines running along the Turnpike’s east right-of-way. To make matters more challenging, the Lake Worth Drainage District (LWDD) canal system runs along both sides of the corridor. So, by avoiding the utility lines on the east side of the Turnpike, widening the road to eight total lanes will encroach onto the LWDD canal on the west side. We also need to accommodate two express lanes in the middle with access ramps, plus a toll plaza—all within a tight right-of-way with gas lines on one side of the roadway and LWDD canals on the other.

It sounds like you’ve been given a challenging task. What’s your solution?

John: With the gas lines on the east side of the corridor, the majority of the widening will occur on the west—into the LWDD canal. We are currently proposing the utilization of bulkhead walls in the canal to minimize impacts to LWDD. The walls will be located between the roadway and the canal to accommodate the roadway widening, and we will provide space for a utility and drainage corridor. GAI’s team will use extensive drainage design models to assure LWDD that the canals will function as they do today—coordination with LWDD continues.

FTE is implementing managed lanes on this section of the Turnpike—would you explain managed lanes and how they work?

John: Transportation agencies often have different definitions of managed lanes. Basically, a managed lane is a type of highway lane that operates under a flexible management system, in which strategies are implemented to respond to changing conditions. The purpose of managed lanes is to improve operating conditions—for example, improved traffic speed, increased safety, or reduced air pollution. On this project, the managed lanes will operate as express toll lanes separated from the general-purpose lanes.

How will FTE charge for using the express lanes?

John: The express lanes are tolled separately. Florida’s Turnpike is already a tolled road, so during normal traffic, express lanes will be tolled the same as the general use lanes. As congestion builds up on the general use lanes, the express lanes provide travelers with a way out of the congestion, but with a higher toll rate—sometimes referred to as “congestion tolling.” The more traffic volume on the general use lanes, the higher the toll on the express lanes, but with the assurance of travel at the speed limit. With the higher toll, funding through bond sales can fund the construction and then be paid back with the managed lanes toll revenue.

Why is FTE implementing express lanes on this section of the Turnpike?

John: This area of the state has experienced steady growth, and with that, heavy traffic at peak travel times. Even though they’re managed lanes, the two additional lanes will help to reduce and relieve this existing traffic. And by charging users a premium price to drive in the express lanes, the income generated will help fund construction.

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What project milestones has GAI’s team achieved so far?

John: We are still in the preliminary design and data collection stage. Survey will be completed in June, with a 15 percent line and grade submittal scheduled for later in the month.

When will the project be completed?

John: This is a two-part project that will take about three years. Part A entails providing up to about 45 percent design plans and obtaining approval from the utility companies on the design before moving forward to Part B, which encompasses construction plan finalization. Part A will take about 18 months and Part B another 18 months.

Are there other examples of GAI managed lanes projects?

John: GAI has been involved in a handful of managed lanes projects. Two recent examples include design services for SR 589, Veterans Expressway, Section 5, Widening Design-Build for FTE in Tampa, FL, which is currently under construction, and the I-295 Express Lanes for the Florida Department of Transportation District Two in Jacksonville, FL, for which GAI is providing construction engineering and inspection services.

To learn more about Florida’s Turnpike Widening from Atlantic Avenue to Boynton Beach Boulevard, visit our website or contact Director, Engineering/Transportation John Saunders, PE at 813.605.7064.

John has nearly 30 years of experience and a proven track record of successfully managing and leading transportation teams and high-profile projects. He specializes in highway design project management for limited-access highway projects and all aspects of roadway plan development, including planning, design, project management, and post design services. John has been involved in the development and design of multi-lane mainline toll facilities ranging from high-speed express lanes to ramp plazas to all-electronic toll collection facilities.

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