Rick Scott directs efforts to ease disaster evacuations in Florida

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PHOTO BY JOEY ROULETTE
  • Photo by Joey Roulette
From “dynamic” message signs along Interstate 75 to completing certain turnpike projects on time, Gov. Rick Scott called Friday for a series of improvements to help with disaster evacuations.

The directives, based in part on suggestions from the state Department of Transportation, came as lawmakers continue to review proposals aimed at addressing fallout from the evacuation of 6.5 million people ahead of Hurricane Irma. During the evacuation, motorists spent up to 12 hours on routes that typically are covered in six to seven hours.

Scott directed the department to immediately expand “emergency shoulder use” along key interstates, a strategy employed in September as traffic backed up while motorists fled north on I-75 ahead of Irma.

The governor also called for installing cameras and message signs along I-75 from Ocala north to the Georgia state line and increasing the capacity of the state’s Florida 511 website, which provides real-time traffic information about major roads.

Also, by July the department is expected to identify areas along key evacuation routes where more fuel services are needed and look at ways to expand fuel capacity for first responders.

“It is critically important that we continue to do all we can to make sure our state is fully prepared in the face of any potential disaster,” Scott said in a prepared statement.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who is expected to face an election challenge from Scott this fall, issued a release saying that he filed legislation in October seeking the U.S. Department of Energy to set up east and west coast gasoline reserves in Florida and had called for the state Department of Transportation to examine options for additional fuel storage.

“Unlike Nelson’s bill, this report today by the governor doesn’t offer any real solutions, it simply asks the state to look at doing something Nelson proposed five months ago,” said Ryan Brown, Nelson’s spokesman.

Scott had directed the Department of Transportation in October to work with other state agencies, ports, law enforcement and fuel retailers to determine how to increase fuel capacity during emergencies.

Scott release Friday continued to advise the department to work with Florida’s ports and the fuel industry on additional fuel storage.

Scott’s directive also calls for completing interchange improvements at Florida’s Turnpike and I-75 in 2019. The work is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2019, according to the Department of Transportation report.

Scott also said he wants to widen to six lanes a portion of the turnpike between the Lake-Sumter County line to the County Road 468 interchange in Sumter County in 2023, and to widen the highway from the Country Road 468 interchange to I-75 starting in 2025. The work is currently outlined to begin in those years by the state department.

The department review also suggested emergency shoulder plans for I-75 northbound from Alligator Alley in Fort Lauderdale; on the turnpike northbound from Orlando; on Interstate 95 northbound from Jupiter to south of Jacksonville; and on Interstate 10 westbound from I-75 to just east of Tallahassee.

The Florida House and Senate are reviewing a number of evacuation-related proposals, including an extension of the Suncoast Parkway north from the Tampa Bay region to the Georgia state line. Other proposals include using passenger rail to evacuate citizen; and testing the impact of converting portions of highways during emergencies into all one-way traffic, a process known as “contraflow.”

Department of Transportation Secretary Michael Dew told lawmakers in October that contraflow would require increased law enforcement at each interchange, limit the ability of relief operations and fuel trucks to travel into impacted areas and cause backups where lanes merge as the contraflow comes to an end.

The Senate on Thursday started to move forward with a proposal (SB 700) to set up a Florida Strategic Fuel Reserve Task Force within the Division of Emergency Management. The task force would recommend by April 30, 2019, a strategic fuel reserve plan to meet needs during emergencies and disasters.