Florida lawmakers kicked off their 60-day legislative session on Tuesday with a docket of more than 1,700 bills – including many on provocative issues like a 6-week abortion ban, transgender medical care, migrant relocation, permitless carry for concealed weapons, and the death penalty for child sex abusers.
But Lakeland officials are laser-focused on just one: a transportation bill that could deliver $197 million for a major highway project they’ve spent more than 15 years pursuing.
The bill, expected to be introduced in committee, would fund a complete redesign of the State Road 33/exit 38 interchange at Interstate 4, just west of Florida Polytechnic University.
It is part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “Moving Florida Forward” initiative and, if approved, would speed up construction by at least four years.
“This is the biggest road project we’ve had since the completion of the Polk Parkway in 1999 in terms of scope and cost,” said Chuck Barmby, the city of Lakeland’s Planning & Transportation manager.
Although the area around it has seen rapid development over the past decade and a half – with the addition of the Bridgewater community, apartments, warehouses, and the nearby Innovation District anchored by Florida Polytechnic – Barmby said the diamond-shaped exit 38 interchange “looks very similar to how it did in the 1960s.”
“It’s the last exit on I-4 in Polk County and (FDOT’s) District One that hasn’t been reconstructed,” he said.
A long time coming
Plans for the project were drawn in June 2014, amended in August 2016, and revised again in June 2019 with a recommendation for roundabouts on S.R. 33 at the I-4 ramps in both directions. But the funding has been elusive.
The $197 million proposal would fund four separate projects:
- Widen the 2.5-mile segment from Old Combee Road to south of University Boulevard from two lanes to four lanes with a 22-foot median and two roundabouts.
- Widen the 1.5-mile segment from south of University Boulevard to north of Tomkow Road from two lanes to four lanes with a 30-foot median and two roundabouts.
- Create one wildlife crossing as a bridge over I-4.
- Create another wildlife crossing as an underpass beneath S.R. 33.
Barmby rattled off a list of current and former Lakeland and Polk Transportation Planning Organization officials who have made road trips to Tallahassee to advocate for the project including former Commissioner Phillip Walker, Mayor Bill Mutz, and former Mayor Gow Fields.
“Everybody’s been rooting for this road for years. Every city manager, mayor, commissioner … There have been many hands that have touched this project,” he said. “Our elected officials have driven up and back on the same day many times to advocate for this corridor.”
At one point, the project was scheduled for 2045. The Florida Department of Transportation’s most recent five-year work program has a smaller scope version of the project slated for 2028, with only the interchange and no road widening or wildlife crossings.
So Barmby said city officials were “very excited” to see the full project included in DeSantis’ $7 billion initiative to fast track congestion-relief projects across the state.
The mayor agreed, saying, “The funding for exit 38 is paramount for two very important reasons. First is the safety of motorists traveling on I-4, as that exit continues to back up with vehicles on the interstate during busy times and major accidents are highly likely.”
“Secondly, this exit serves as a portal for accommodating the dramatically accelerating growth of businesses and citizens in Lakeland, Auburndale and Winter Haven,” Mutz said. “As one of Florida’s fastest-growing regions, the timing need is now. … This investment averts a crisis while becoming a catalyst for future growth.”
The funding is expected to be bundled into an omnibus transportation bill that had not yet been introduced as of Tuesday afternoon.
Lakeland lobbyist David Shepp said that’s not unusual. It may take the form of a Proposed Committee Bill.
Shepp said the policy bill and accompanying budget appropriation are highly likely to pass because of DeSantis’ backing. The popular Republican was re-elected by a decisive margin in November and his party has supermajorities in both chambers.
“Anything can happen during a legislative session; however if you look back at the track record for proposals forwarded by the governor, they tend to finish the way they were introduced,” Shepp said.
The governor’s proposal includes projects in nearly every legislator’s district, so Shepp predicted: “It’s definitely going to be a priority for the House and the Senate. I don’t see them picking or choosing winners out of the list. It’s likely to be all or nothing.”
If the bill passes, Barmby said reconstruction of the interchange could begin by the end of the year.
“It’s going to be a very different corridor than what’s there today,” Barmby said.
That’s what Tess Schwartz, Lakeland’s manager of Traffic Operations, is hoping for. Schwartz is spearheading the city’s “Vision Zero” efforts to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries.
“This is an important step in addressing northeast Lakeland’s transportation needs in terms of capacity and safety,” Schwartz said.
SEND CORRECTIONS, questions, feedback or news tips: email@example.com