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50 years on: How Florida's Turnpike transformed the state
By Michael Turnbell
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

January 25, 2007



Walt Disney might have built his theme park elsewhere. Suburban sprawl in west Broward and Palm Beach counties would have been slower. And you think rush hour's bad now?

Florida would be dramatically different but for a four-lane ribbon of asphalt that opened 50 years ago today.

"How sweet it is!" proclaimed Jackie Gleason in TV ads, expressing the exhilaration of cruising down Florida's Turnpike, the state's first modern superhighway. The road was such a novelty that newspapers published instructions on how to merge into traffic.

For $2.40, motorists could avoid the hassles of 100 stoplights along U.S. 1 and take the turnpike instead, cutting up to 11/2 hours off the 110-mile trip from Miami to Fort Pierce.

The turnpike not only revolutionized driving, but changed the map of South Florida, influencing where a growing postwar middle class chose to live, work and vacation.

"This new road created a coordinated guide, for better or worse, that would affect the growth of Florida for years to come," said Charles Lee, advocacy director of Florida Audubon, a conservation group.

More than 330,000 vehicles drove the turnpike in its first month, ringing up $381,000 in revenues, or $13,000 per day. That exceeded the $10,500 per day officials had estimated would be necessary for the turnpike to cover its costs and repay the $74 million in bonds sold to finance its construction.

Annual toll revenues have grown from $3.6 million in 1957 on that original 110-mile stretch to $633 million last year on the turnpike's expanded network of 460 miles of roads.

Half a century ago, the main routes from the north were a narrow and somewhat dangerous U.S. 27 or U.S. 441 inland and the slower routes of U.S. 1 and Dixie Highway near the coast. Interstate 95 existed only in bits and pieces until the mid-1970s.

The original plan for the turnpike was to run near the route occupied today by I-95. But Hamilton Forman, a dairy farmer and one of Broward's most powerful political figures, had a different vision after he saw the impact of roads in Los Angeles.

"It would have been a ... wall, stifling development in the west," Forman told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1995.

Forman and other landowners sued because the turnpike would have left much of their land inaccessible. The state backed down and moved the turnpike west of U.S. 441. The change also allowed the state to build I-95 in eastern Broward and Palm Beach counties several years later.

"Moving the turnpike west was a good deal," Forman said in a recent interview. "It opened a lot of land up to development."

Another route change would pave the way for Disney World several years later. Orlando attorney William H. "Billy" Dial, a member of the powerful State Road Board, persuaded then-Gov. Leroy Collins to divert the turnpike from Fort Pierce to Orlando after consultants said the new route would generate enough tolls to pay for the highway.

In 1963, Walt Disney and his staff flew over Central Florida to scout locations for his new theme park. They saw a giant X where the new turnpike crossed the future Interstate 4 and thousands of acres of undeveloped land to the south that would later become home to Disney World.

"That's it!" Disney said, looking down from the plane, wrote Rollins College professor Richard Foglesong in Married to the Mouse, his 2001 book about the company's complex relationship with the city of Orlando.

The turnpike was the fastest road construction project of its day. The first 110-mile stretch cost $62 million and took 18 months to open. That's a bargain compared with the nearly $500 million being spent to widen 26 miles of the turnpike through Broward, which is expected to take seven to 10 years.

When the first stretch of the turnpike was built, it didn't require the purchase of expensive property. Most of the land was rural. Cattle tunnels were built beneath the highway where the road split vast dairy lands in South Florida.

George Elmore, who founded Delray Beach-based paving company Hardrives Inc. in 1953, said the first three turnpike interchanges in Palm Beach County were virtual outposts with nearly 18 miles between them.

"It was way, way, way out west," Elmore said. "There were few paved roads that even went out that far. To get to the turnpike in Boca, you had to go through farm fields and across ditches."

By the late '70s, the South Florida stretch of the turnpike carried more commuters headed to work than truckers or tourists. Coin-toss baskets replaced the old fare cards, and toll plazas were built on the highway in place of toll booths at every exit to ease backups.

In the mid '80s, legislators debated whether to discontinue the tolls because the original bonds had been paid off. In 1990, they voted to keep the tolls and use the money to build more than $1 billion in new toll roads and expand the turnpike in South Florida.

That decision all but guaranteed that the turnpike will remain a toll road, fueling the addition of about 150 miles of new toll roads and positioning the turnpike to alter the landscape far into the future.

In 2001, the turnpike became Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, free of many bureaucratic rules. Under the new agency, projects must be paid off in 22 years instead of the previous 10 years.

Environmentalists said the decision made it easier for the turnpike to promote urban sprawl by building roads in rural areas that otherwise wouldn't pay for themselves.

But Charles Gray, an Orlando lawyer who led the Turnpike Authority in the '60s and played a role in luring Disney to Orlando, said the decision to keep tolls and use them to build new roads was right.

"We're going to fill up. The state does not have the resources to build transportation facilities that are needed," Gray said. "I predict you're going to see a lot more emphasis on toll roads."

And that's exactly what's happening.

Toll plazas are being revamped without booths, gates or barriers for those who pay tolls electronically with SunPass. In the next decade, drivers might be given the option of paying higher tolls in exchange for the guarantee of riding congestion-free at rush hour in special lanes built in the median.

Two new toll roads cutting through the Kissimmee River watershed are planned. Environmentalists worry that the highways would bring urban sprawl to one of the biggest undeveloped areas left in Florida.

The 130-mile Coast-to-Coast Highway would start north of Bradenton and end between Fort Pierce and Vero Beach. Another north-south toll road called the Heartland Parkway would fork in the north to connect both Orlando and Lakeland with Fort Myers, between U.S. 17 and U.S. 27.

Officials estimate the Coast-to-Coast Highway would cost nearly $3 billion if built today. Because traffic would be too light to generate sufficient toll revenues to pay for either road, a combination of public and private financing may be the only way for the projects to go forward.

Although neither road makes fiscal sense now, the turnpike has built other toll roads, such as the Veterans Expressway and the Suncoast Parkway in the Tampa area, which failed to meet revenue projections.

"Florida road building agencies are becoming the entity that crafts the state's comprehensive plan by default by putting these roads on the map," said Lee, of the Florida Audubon . "That's what happened 50 years ago with the original turnpike. And now it appears we're about to venture into another era."

Michael Turnbell can be reached at mturnbell@sun-sentinel.com, 954-356-4155 or 561-243-6550.
 
 

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