Brake lights stretch beyond view amid an endless stream of orange cones and flashing barricades punctuated by parked police cruisers. With jackhammers pounding away, exhaust fumes and a sense of hopelessness fill the evening air. None of us unlucky souls caught in this construction zone are going anywhere fast.
Road construction continues to spread through Central Florida like a nasty rash, despite last year's rejection by Orange County voters of a half-cent sales tax hike for the grandiose Mobility 20/20 transportation plan. During the next five years nearly $1.8 billion worth of highway and street projects are planned in Orange County. For a county with roughly a million residents, that total translates to $1,800 per person.
The big bucks will go to expanding the local network of toll roads and widening portions of Interstate 4, Alafaya Trail (State Road 434) and Semoran Boulevard (State Road 436).
But as part of an emerging trend, some money also has been earmarked to make existing roads better, instead of simply bigger. It sounds like a good idea. Yet to this easily annoyed observer, one of these cutting-edge projects felt like a colossal waste of my time.
Welcome to my hell
For the past six months, the same hellish scene replayed itself virtually every night on East Colonial Drive. At precisely 7 p.m. the barricades and police cars with lights ablaze would move into position, funneling three lanes of post-rush hour traffic into a slow-moving single file.
The result: a 5-minute trip to Publix for a bag of diapers and a gallon of milk routinely turned into a 45-minute ordeal. And if you ever hoped to get back home, venturing another eight blocks to the video store was completely out of the question.
According to the Florida Department of Transportation, the nighttime gridlock was necessary "to improve public safety and traffic flow efficiency" on State Road 50 -- one of Orlando's most notoriously busy roadways.
In the $4 million project, contractor Gilbert Southern's 40 employees milled and resurfaced 3.8 miles of Colonial Drive, from Orange Blossom Trail to Bennett Road. Creating a rumbling racket that echoed for blocks through surrounding neighborhoods, the crews replaced 19,000 cubic yards of concrete.
"That was one rough-riding road in dire need of rehabilitation," says Jay Gosalia, a superintendent for Gilbert Southern, who is based in Broward County. He stressed that a smoother Colonial Drive should lead to enhanced "ride-ability."
Another aspect of the project involved upgrading pedestrian signalization and crosswalks to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In addition, 32 planters with Washingtonia palms and crepe myrtles were installed between Peachtree Road and Orange Blossom Trail -- an "improvement" that has irked drivers by preventing them from sliding into the parking lane for right turns.
Jim Stratton, who writes the Orlando Sentinel's Road Dog column, described the new landscaping on Colonial Drive as akin to "putting earrings on a pig. "This road is so inhumane, you'd need a series of explosions, not a series of planters -- which cost about $290,000 -- to soften it up."
The pricey planters were a relatively minor expense compared to the $400,000 that DOT officials spent to keep traffic crawling through the construction zone between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. Most of this money, which breaks down to about $15,000 per week during the project, went to bored-looking off-duty Orlando police officers who maintained a nightly vigil.
"I've never seen so many cops in my life," my wife commented after we passed the sixth police car while creeping through Colonial's cones and barricades one night. "What's the deal?"
To find out, I called DOT spokeswoman Maricelle Wernet. Answering on her cell phone while driving, she dutifully pulled over before discussing the road construction work on Colonial Drive.
Why did it cost $400,000 to keep the road open while crews toiled at night?
"Safety, safety, safety," Wernet replied, explaining that the highly visible police presence helped protect motorists, construction workers and pedestrians.
A misguided motorist
In celebration of the State Road 50 project's recent completion, I took a drive after the Super Bowl. With only a smattering of traffic at 10 p.m., it was indeed a pleasure to cruise along on a relatively smooth road free of barricades, cones and an armada of cop cars.
Nonetheless, I felt gypped. Drivers suffering through the roadwork on Alafaya Trail, Semoran Boulevard and I-4 can look forward to a blessed day when new lanes open to traffic. Where is the payoff for months of construction that tied traffic in knots on Colonial? Will the road be any less crowded at rush hour?
Walter Kulash, an Orlando-area traffic engineer who has worked on highways around the nation, disagreed with my assertions that the State Road 50 project was a boondoggle. He gently suggested that I'm a typically misguided motorist.
"Spending money on improvements that do not add extra lanes is a new idea that the public is taking time to get used to," Kulash says. But in his view, it's a wiser strategy than continually building bigger highways and interstates -- an approach he terms "lanes without limit" that traffic planners in many cities and states have gradually abandoned.
"It's about quality instead of quantity," says Kulash, who works with the Orlando firm of Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin Lopez Rinehart Inc. "Adding more lanes can lead to a rat race that actually makes things worse."
Citing "utterly hostile" Semoran Boulevard as a prime example, Kulash said increasing a roadway's capacity encourages drivers to take longer trips, which ultimately creates more congestion. Plus wider roads pave the way for further growth -- compounding the problem that led to the current mess on many Central Florida highways.
In contrast, Kulash mentioned the Colonial Drive improvements and plans for an upcoming repaving of State Road 17/92 as the type of projects that can enhance an existing road's accessibility and aesthetics, often setting the stage for the development of neighborhood business districts.
Looking back at last year's defeat of the $2.6 billion Mobility 20/20 transportation plan, Kulash says voters might have been more supportive if the proposal had concentrated on improving neighborhood roads rather than placing so much emphasis on widening
Maybe he's right. Perhaps the money and time spent milling and repaving Colonial Drive was a wise investment. But I still have doubts.
Did the $4 million in roadwork and months of nocturnal gridlock accomplish the DOT's goals of improving "traffic flow efficiency?" Not that I can see -- especially during rush hour, which still often seems to be a daylong event.
To be fair, I realize that it would likely be impossible to make Colonial any wider without demolishing the strip of successful Asian restaurants and grocers that are one of the road's only redeeming qualities. This is one thoroughfare where wider probably would not be better.
But it is equally difficult to accept the notion that adding a few planters and some new pavement and concrete have radically improved the driving experience on this abomination of a road. The bottom line: A smoother Colonial still sucks.
At least the work has finally ended, which is a relief because it's time to run out for more diapers and milk.