Noranne Downs, District 5 secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, more than any other single individual, influences the direction transportation will take in the nine-county Central Florida region she oversees. Downs, who was hired by the transportation department in 1991, became secretary six years ago and because of that, serves on nearly every local transportation agency board in the area.
Looking back, she reflected on how her approach to transportation development has changed: “Early in my career, transportation planning in Florida was primarily focused on building more roads and wider roads in order to move cars and trucks as fast as possible just to keep up with the significant growth in population. Now that Central Florida has many mature urban communities. We recognize the role of our transportation system is to improve our quality of life; this means making streets safe for pedestrians and cyclists, and providing public transit options to both enhance our economy and to serve our customers.”
Of course a major component in that maturation process has been SunRail. Downs continued, “SunRail evolved out of the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization process, where local officials set transportation funding priorities. SunRail has long been ranked the top transit priority for the region. So we were very fortunate – the vision was always there. Perhaps the biggest challenge was in negotiating the complex details of all our inter-local agreements, which are important so that everyone is aware of expectations moving forward. But again, the regional benefits of the system resulted in unanimous approval of those agreements in 2007 by all five of our local funding partners in Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties, as well as the City of Orlando.
Interstate 4 Makeover
Close to 200,000 vehicles per day travel the interstate through downtown Orlando. To address that situation, Interstate 4 through metro Orlando is soon getting a major makeover. Downs explained the scope of the I-4 project: “Construction to widen 21 miles of interstate is expected to begin in late 2014 or early 2015. The project will extend from Kirkman Road, near the attractions south of Orlando, to just past State Road 434 in Seminole County.
“The project will have managed lanes in the middle, where pricing is based on demand. This will give people a choice to pay a certain price for a toll fee for a guaranteed travel time. The general use lanes (the lanes where there are no tolls) are getting improved as well, as are various local road connections along the interstate. Bridges and interchanges along the route will see major improvements/replacements. The projected target for project completion is 2018-2020.”
Since transportation projects take decades to materialize, Downs commented on what she learned most through the SunRail project: “Regional vision and cooperation without a doubt! From SunRail’s inception to date, Central Florida’s political and community leaders, business executives, residents and stakeholders have been enthusiastically supportive of SunRail, working together as a regional unit to ensure the project’s success. I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to work with such a wonderful group of dedicated professionals.”