Six months after a fiery crash on Interstate 75 killed seven people, including five children on a church trip to Disney World, little has changed in improving safety on the interstate.
Florida Highway Patrol troopers are patrolling more through the use of special details, as The Gainesville Sun recently reported. But as anyone who has driven recently on the stretch of I-75 passing through Alachua and Marion counties knows, drivers are still speeding, traffic still gets congested regularly and the potential for deadly crashes is still high.
As tragic as the deaths in the Jan. 3 crash were, they should have come as no surprise. After all, congestion and safety issues on I-75 were the focus of a task force of area officials formed nearly four years ago to study the problems and develop solutions.
In 2016, the group issued common-sense recommendations on ways to improve safety and the flow of travelers and goods. They included adding truck-only lanes, improving and expanding nearby roadways to keep vehicles off the interstate, providing more long-distance travel options such as intercity bus services and passenger rail, and expanding freight rail capacity and connectivity.
The group rejected a Florida Department of Transportation plan for a new highway. And yet during this past session of the state Legislature, lawmakers ignored the task force’s recommendations and instead approved a plan for three new toll roads through rural parts of Florida.
Residents of Alachua and Marion counties received good news recently that one of the roads, an extension of the Suncoast Parkway 150 miles north to the Georgia border, isn’t planned to pass through either county. But the project’s impact on some of the most extensive green spaces left in Florida should still concern everyone, especially its potential to harm springs, wetlands and the aquifer.
The cost of the toll roads is another concern. The Legislature committed, and Gov. Ron DeSantis agreed, to spending hundreds of millions of dollars just for planning purposes over the next few years. The overall price tag is estimated at more than $1 billion, but no one really knows for sure and there are no assurances that tolls will cover the tab.
The money would be better spent making improvements to existing roads and other more immediate measures to improve safety. The FHP patrols are a good start, but Alachua County commissioners should find a way to fund Sheriff Sadie Darnell’s request for a traffic unit dedicated to I-75.
Other fixes might include the use of technology to monitor speeds and carpool lanes to reduce congestion. Improvements to mass transit and area roads that provide an alternative to the interstate would help. Truck-only lanes would make sense if done in a way to accommodate an expected shift to autonomous trucks in the years ahead.
January’s high-profile crash should have shocked officials into taking new steps to improve safety. Officials need to work to prevent similar tragedies by improving conditions on I-75 as soon as possible, rather than wasting time and money on a toll-roads boondoggle.
This editorial originally appeared in the Gainesville Sun.