When Mark Callahan looks back on the arduous but successful seven-year effort of managing the project development and environment study for the $1.6-billion Wekiva Parkway, he gives credit to an unlikely group—environmentalists who once opposed it.
“Without the environmental groups on board, it wouldn’t have happened,” says Callahan, who led CH2M’s PD&E study effort for the Florida Dept. of Transportation (FDOT) and what was then the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority (OOCEA). Initiated in 2005—nearly 20 years after conceptual plans for the regional beltway—the PD&E study was key to winning federal approval, in 2012.
The cooperative approach has implications for future infrastructure investments around the country.
Environmentalists weren’t just on board. At times, they took the wheel to help drive the long-stalled project forward by “drawing our alignments and giving us input,” recalls Callahan. If groups like the Florida Audubon Society hadn’t championed the project as ardently as they did, Callahan says, “We’d still be arm wrestling about the darned thing.”
Instead, the project finally moved forward, authorized via the Wekiva Parkway and Protection Act, signed into law by then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R) in 2004. FDOT and the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX)—previously OOCEA—are jointly managing the $1.6-billion project. CFX handles the two Orange County sections, and FDOT oversees the sections located in Lake and Seminole counties. In 2013, FDOT awarded a $27.2-million design-build contract for sections 4A and 4B that The De Moya Group completed in January. FDOT is procuring an estimated $220-million design-build contract for Section 6, which includes the Wekiva River bridge. Bids are due next year.
CFX is managing construction of 9.6 miles of new expressway. Prince Contracting holds the $56.1-million, 2.1-mile-long Section 1A contract, scheduled for completion in 2017. Superior Construction is building nearly 4.4 miles of expressway via a $46.6-million Section 1B contract targeting an April 2017 completion, and a $38.6-million contract scheduled to wrap up by January 2018. Southland Construction is building the 1.5-mile-long Section 2B via its $79.6-million contract, and GLF Construction holds a $49.5-million contract for the 1.6-mile-long Section 2C. Both sections are slated to finish in January 2018.
The effort to build the Wekiva Parkway dates to a 1986 study that produced conceptual designs. The parkway’s alignment runs through a part of the state noted for its unusual-for-Florida geography of rolling hills that includes multiple state parks, a bear wilderness area and other federally protected natural resources, including the nationally designated Wekiva River.
Carrying SR 429, the parkway will initially have four lanes, with an ultimate six-lane build-out. It will connect to SR 417, completing a long-sought regional beltway as an alternative to Interstate 4. The project consists of 25 miles of new expressway, seven miles of widening State Road 46, reconstructing the U.S. 441/State Road 46 interchange in Mount Dora and relocating a mile of County Road 46A out of the Seminole State Forest.
May 2012 brought two big milestones. The FHWA issued a Finding Of No Significant Impact, preempting the need for an environmental impact statement. And FDOT and OOCEA (now CFX) finalized a preliminary funding agreement. FDOT’s and CFX’s financial commitments stand at $1.1 billion and nearly $527 million, respectively. CFX received a $194-million TIFIA loan in 2015. The project includes $500 million in non-tolled road improvements.
“A lot of things fell into place,” says Ananth Prasad, national transportation sector leader for HNTB and FDOT secretary at the time. “Wekiva happened because of the willingness of all parties to clean up old issues, and that required a lot of give and take.” HNTB is engineering sections 1 to 5, while Atkins is designing sections 6 to 8.
The Florida Audubon Society (FAS) initiated that give-and-take, says Charles Lee, director of advocacy for the group’s Central Florida office. When FDOT officials and environmental groups had reached an impasse over the proposed beltway, FDOT instead started rolling out plans for widening Lake County’s State Road 46 that Audubon’s Lee calls “just awful.” The proposed expansion “would spur all kinds of development … and would have increased wildlife mortality,” Lee says, especially of black bears. “It became clear to us that just saying ‘No’ didn’t get us anywhere but to a totally unacceptably expanded SR 46.”
Consequently, Lee and Callahan recall, FAS proposed construction of a “clean enclave-type highway” that would be partly elevated, providing wildlife crossings and decreasing wetlands impacts, along with minimal interchanges. Compared to the alternatives proposed by FDOT, a Wekiva Parkway built with that concept would provide “environmental results [that] would be far superior,” Lee argued at the time.
The transportation agencies agreed, and incorporated some 7,700 ft of elevated structures designed to accommodate wildlife crossings below, according to FDOT’s Alan Hyman, FDOT’s director of transportation operations in Central Florida’s district 5.
Along its 25-mile-long alignment, the expressway’s mainline will both rise and fall. Lowering the elevation is an unusual characteristic for a Florida road project given the usually shallow water table, but it wasn’t a problem given the relatively hilly local terrain. For instance, one roughly 1.5-mile-long stretch of mainline will gradually dive to a depth of nearly 25 ft below its natural elevation in order to minimize visual and sonic disruptions to residents from passing cars.
Precast concrete panels painstakingly designed and stained to a more natural-looking, varying hue will comprise the mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) walls that support the expressway’s eight interchanges, creating a true “parkway” feel akin to that of the Blue Ridge Parkway, says Donald Budnovich, resident engineer for CFX.
CFX chose concrete U-beam girders for bridge girders, a technology the agency first used on its recently completed $85-million Boggy Creek Interchange project near Orlando International Airport. This time, they’re adding a twist, or a “nuance,” says Budnovich: haunches on the beams.
“It’s an aesthetic feature, but the thought on the engineering side was: ‘We’ve done the curved concrete U-beam, why not try a haunch?,’” Budnovich says. “It’s a nice aesthetic feature.”
CFX and contractor Superior Construction Co. erected the first U-beam girders for the Kelly Park Road bridge, spanning 160 ft, on section 1B in June. Curved concrete U-beams typically have more weight on one side. “When you add a haunch, you’re multiplying the effect because you’re adding more weight to one side than the other, but also end to end,” Aldrich explains.
Perhaps none of those aesthetic touches would be under construction if not for the arduous effort it took to secure U.S. Dept. of Interior approval for the $1.6-billion project’s signature component—the 2,068-ft-long state Route 46 bridge over the “wild and scenic” Wekiva River.
Initially, construction and enviro groups butted heads over the crossing, recalls Callahan. “The environmental community just drew a line and said, ‘You’re not doing this the way you normally do it; we’ve got to come up with some other approach,’ ” he says. “That was kind of the turn that got everybody to the table.”
Protected by the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, the Wekiva River is part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System that includes “certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values” and that are maintained in a “free-flowing condition.” While separate classifications, “wild” and “scenic” denote that rivers are “free of impoundments” and are considered generally “primitive.” Think kayaks and canoes, not motorboats.
As a result, the National Park Service (NPS) stood front and center for project coordination and permitting. At first, Callahan says, NPS was skeptical on the notion of building a big new bridge over the quiet Wekiva. But the road-builders had a key ally—the environmentalists.
“A road-building agency talking to the National Park Service doesn’t necessarily hold a lot of sway,” Callahan says. “But when you have almost all of the environmental interests in and around the Wekiva area telling the Park Service that this is the right thing to do, that got us there.”
Listening carefully to those environmental interests, planners decided on building a bridge along the same route as the current low-level structure, but roughly 50 ft above the existing structure, thus limiting river impacts, says Lee. The move enables excavation of earthen embankments that infringe upon the river at both ends of the existing substructure. The heightened elevation will also improve the recreational experience; for example, kayakers and canoers will no longer have to duck when they pass under the bridge during high tide.
Engineers floated balloons along the potential paths in order to obtain perspectives of the bridge from the water, and vice versa, which were important factors to environmentalists, residents and recreational users.
To minimize river impacts—including the potential shadow cast upon the Wekiva—engineers decided upon a three-structure crossing, with each structure built to accommodate a maximum of three lanes. Two of the structures will accommodate eastbound and southbound traffic along SR 46, while the third is built as a local service road and to facilitate pedestrian traffic. The structures are being procured via an FDOT solicitation for design-build proposals for an estimated $220-million contract, and will be built via top-down construction.
Only a precast segmental, arched-box structure would work, says FDOT’s Hyman, citing pier systems’ potential river impacts and the bridge’s span lengths, the longest of which measures 360 ft. River users wanted a bridge that “more or less blends in with the environment,” and contractors would have to stay out of the river during construction, Hyman says, so cable-stayed or steel truss bridges would not work.
Constructing one massive structure also was a no-go, he adds, since a bridge accommodating up to nine lanes of vehicular or pedestrian traffic would cast too great a shadow. “Dividing it up into three parallel bridges let more light on the river,” he says. “[Enough light] was a big concern.”
Next, in late 2013 and early 2014, Wekiva River bridge designer FIGG Bridge Engineers—working as subconsultant to GAI Consultants, the engineer-of-record for Section 6—began leading design charrettes with NPS, FDOT and the environmental groups that would solicit critical feedback on all aspects of the bridge’s design, including its exact color, the type of railings used, and even the abstract expression of a tree-related theme within the structures’ piers.
“In the end, it became very clear, especially with the Park Service, that this met their needs with the visual effects and the integrity of the river and the recreation on the river,” says Callahan.
The process that enabled Wekiva construction is just the start of what construction industry representatives and environmentalists alike agree could be happier trails ahead. “The idea of pulling together a consensus process early in the game, before lines get on paper, is very important,” Lee of FAS says. “There’s value to getting everybody together to try to work things out up front, and to create some more formality to the resolution process. That way, you can go back to decision-makers and carry a much stronger sense of consensus.”
The PD&E study that Callahan and CH2M delivered “has become a model for corridor studies in Florida,” says Hyman with FDOT. “If we didn’t get the stakeholders together early on in the PD&E, I don’t think this would’ve happened the way it did.”
The Wekiva model is informing planners and other stakeholders currently participating in FDOT’s I-75 Relief task force, which is studying concepts surrounding a Tampa Bay-to-northeast Florida corridor.
And despite the exhaustive process that Wekiva required, at least one project participant remains enthusiastic about future planning efforts. Says Callahan: “I can’t wait to do another one.”
The first Wekiva Parkway conceptual design work gets underway with the start of the Northwest Beltway Part B Study
The Wekiva River is designated a “wild and scenic river,” and thereby safeguarded by the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. While separate classifications, “wild” and “scenic” denote rivers characterized by being “free of impoundments” and are considered generally “primitive.” The designation would prompt the need for roadbuilders to secure project approval from the Dept. of Interior’s National Park Service, marking only the second time in U.S. history for such project review, according to FDOT officials.
Gov. Jeb Bush creates the Wekiva Basin Area Task Force, which is given the duty of analyzing and recommending a study area for connecting SR 429 (the Western Beltway) in Apopka to Interstate 4 in Seminole County.
Gov. Jeb Bush created the Wekiva River Basin Coordinating Committee.
The Florida legislature passes the Wekiva Parkway & Protection Act, which is signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush. The law prescribes the alignment for the future 25-mile-long parkway.
Hired by the Florida Dept. of Transportation and the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, CH2M Hill, now CH2M, begins work to produce the project development and environment (PD&E) study for the Wekiva Parkway, now considered to be the “model” for corridor studies in Florida, such as the ongoing I-75 Relief Task Force.
Officials with FDOT and OOCEA on May 25 announce an agreement to move forward with construction of the Wekiva Parkway. At the time, OOCEA and Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise expressed hope that construction could start by late 2012.
This year marked a turning point for the project. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issues a Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI), determining that the project “will not have any significant impact upon the environment”—thus precluding the need for a environmental impact statement. Also that year, then-Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad signed a memorandum of agreement with OOCEA that establishes a funding structure and pushes the long-planned project one step closer to reality.
The DeMoya Group starts work on a $26.7-million design-build contract with the Florida Dept. of Transportation, marking the first construction of the Wekiva Parkway
The Central Florida Expressway Authority starts construction on its first sections of its nearly 10 miles of expressway mainline.