The Ongoing Heritage of the OOC Expressway Authority
The year was 1961. Cape Canaveral was home to the United States Missile Test Center. The Martin Company (later Martin-Marietta and Lockheed-Martin) had purchased 7,300 acres in southwest Orange County,spurring business and residential development. Over 300,000 people lived in metropolitan Orlando and new residents were flooding in, reaching a critical stage in many areas. Transportation was strained – from inadequate roads to runways for planes.
It reached a boiling point when President Kennedy announced he wanted to put a man on the moon in ten years. This, coupled with Orlando’s desire to retain its economic leadership position, meant the transport of people and goods was the region’s number one priority. The questions central to people’s minds were how to fund it and who was going to lead the effort.
Leaders at the Helm
Meet the transportation leaders who turned transportation visioning into a reality. Let’s start with Martin Andersen, owner of the Orlando Sentinel. He gathered a team and quickly formed the Central Florida Development Commission (CFDC) with three main goals: to promote an area university, create an East Central Florida Regional Planning Council and to complete a road system for the metropolitan area to include connecting Cape Canaveral to Orlando.
As Andersen was working on the roads, Mayor Carl Langford was focused on air transport. Using his keen negotiating skills, the mayor struck a deal with the U.S. Air Force whereby civilian passenger planes could land at McCoy Air Force Base while the city built a terminal on military land. The long-term lease was in the amount of one dollar.
Leaders were finding transportation solutions, but the unanswered question was funding for roads. With no federal funding available, Andersen and his team talked about a toll road system alternative. Two years later, in 1963, the state legislature passed into law the creation of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority (OOCEA).
At the same time, 15-year-old Walter Ketcham, a native Floridian, was focused on hunting and fishing with his father in Tennessee. Ketcham’s story would unfold as he chose to attend Stetson University and then the Stetson College of Law, which put him on the path back to Florida. In 1987, he and his partner, Trip Grower, opened the law firm of Grower Ketcham, where he has provided leadership and guidance in civil and commercial litigation cases. In 2004, it was a brush with death that led Ketcham to dedicate his next chapter to giving more of his time and talent to others. Having beaten cancer, Ketcham now decided it was time to serve others.
“When I got better, with the outpouring of support from our friends, family and community, I said to my wife Vanessa, we really ought to give back more to our community – make a difference,” Ketcham recalled. He turned to his neighbors and friends and they encouraged him to join committees. “I started out with the Orange County Arts and Cultural Affairs Advisory Council. I got a taste for service and I wanted to do more. I said to myself, the harder and more challenging, the better.”
Challenge of a Lifetime
Ketcham got his wish with the appointment to the Expressway Authority board at a time when the board was the subject of media speculation and investigations. Only a year into his service, when then Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty, who was Chairman of the Board, stepped aside, Ketcham was elected by his peers to serve in his place – and has just been reelected for his fourth straight term as chairman.
During this time, Ketcham steered the Expressway Authority and helped move forward a number of notable projects. Take the Wekiva Parkway, a 25-mile road that will complete the beltway around metropolitan Orlando to meet the critical transportation needs of the region, while minimizing public and environmental impacts. Ketcham helped ensure the completion of the $675 million State Road 408 widening and improvements in 2012, and pushed forward for major improvements at one of the busiest crossroads in central Florida, State Road 408/Interstate 4. As Ketcham says, “The Expressway Authority is more than asphalt. It is serving customers through performance, ensuring safety and mobility.”
“Part of my responsibility to the community is having an understanding of transportation planning, engineering, and financing but just as equally important, is listening to our customers and hearing from them about what they like and dislike about expressways,” said Ketcham. “People don’t see us in the customer service business, but we are. Think about it; the expressways operate on toll dollars, not tax dollars. Drivers have a choice and if the expressways are unsafe, need repairs or are congested, then customers will choose other routes. Expressway staff and a team of private contractors work tirelessly everyday on this $6 billion community asset to ensure customers get where they want, when they want – on time and arriving safely.”
Progressing Into the Future
When they want and where they want embodied the bold thinking in the 1960’s when the 24-mile Bee Line was the only link between the Cape and Orlando, and to what Orange County is today with six expressways. Broken down in numbers, the Orlando expressways include 109 miles of roadway, 59 interchanges, 285 bridges and 14 mainline toll plazas. Think of it as a $6 billion community asset linking airports, a spaceport, cruise port and the world’s top tourist attractions, universities and colleges, medical centers, commerce hubs and manufacturing plants.
This is made possible because the transportation needs are in the community’s hands and decisions are made by a lean, local agency operating in Orange County that receives no tax dollars, is unfettered by big government and welcomes customers to call or walk in to their customer service center.
Having been reappointed for a second term, Ketcham says he feels very humble for the confidence placed in him. “My goal is to work together with others to do for our customers today and for Central Floridians in the future so that all of us are able to work and get around in this great region. Our board continues the efforts to make our Expressway Authority meaningful to this community and to do the best job we can for our customers, which includes residents and visitors. There’s a legacy here and we work every day to keep it moving forward into the future.”
The foresight of the early leaders left a legacy of economic growth and connectedness that continues through to the current leadership. Forward-thinking then has led to efficient travel today. The Expressway Authority continues to look to the future, developing transportation solutions for today and beyond into 2040.