Putting the brakes on the Orlando-Casselberry flyover
At the intersection of US 17-92 and S.R. 436 in the City of Casselberry, just outside of Orlando, the Florida Department of Transportation is slated to construct a flyover bridge, which it says will alleviate congestion. Over the past several years, the state has poured tens of millions of dollars into acquiring adjacent land. And finally this September, the construction crews are coming in.
Richard Birdoff, President of RD Management in New York and owner of the Orlando Jai-Alai Fronton as well as more than 50 acres of developable land nearby the proposed flyover, sees the situation differently. “Flyovers are rarely constructed where there is economic wealth and development, and they tend to cause blight and have a chilling effect on economic development and property values,” he states. “All you have to do is go down the road three miles to the flyover that was built at the intersection of 50 and 436 and you can see the detrimental impact it has had on the local retailers.”
Former Casselberry Commissioner Jon Miller disagrees. Last year in the Orlando Sentinel, Miller said that the flyover would be a catalyst for economic growth. He also promised that the structure would be attractive – like “something you would see at Disney.”
Research is on Birdoff’s side — building more roads and bridges does not bring more visitors. What they bring is more congestion. CNU President John Norquist, who in April spoke with a group of more than 200 in Casselberry rallying against the DOT’s proposal, puts it more bluntly: “Does Casselberry want to be a destination or just a great place you drive a truck through?”
Birdoff has done an impressive job of leading the charge against the flyover, hiring firms to conduct studies of alternatives and to look at the actual need. One such alternative, a “boulevard” concept, will not only improve the movement of traffic at the intersection but will also enhance economic development, increase tax ratables and property values, and create jobs. The cost of the “boulevard” alternative is also $10 million less expensive than the flyover.
What’s more, the traffic at the location has actually diminished since the plan was launched back in the early 2000s, from a peak of 8,930 vehicles to 7,964, in 2012.
The situation in Orlando represents a national dichotomy in transportation planning. Transportation engineers and planners are still taught that speed is good, and that cities should have high-speed freeways bisecting them and cutting through neighborhoods. But some local, regional, and state transportation departments are embracing alternative models to the highway model (e.g., San Francisco and Portland) that leave the vital density of cities intact.
Some have argued that it’s simply too late to stop the flyover from going up. The July deadline is nigh. Much money has already been spent. But Birdoff’s focused attack has had an impact: The DOT has come around to the boulevard alternative. “They basically told me, ‘If you can get local support for the boulevard plan, we’re willing to consider not doing the flyover and move ahead with the at-grade improvement.’ The alternative would use all of the right-of-way that the DOT has already claimed, so no money will have been wasted.”
A decision by the Casselberry Commission is imminent — it is on the agenda for their next meeting, in June.
“I hope the Casselberry commissioners have the courage to change direction and support the Boulevard plan,” says CNU President John Norquist. “If you really want jobs and economic development, putting in new freeways is the wrong way to go. Just because a decision made over ten years ago seemed appropriate at the time, it doesn’t mean we should be locked into it if better alternatives are now available.”
Note: This article appears in the June 2013 issue of Better! Cities & Towns.