A new southbound ramp on 1-75/U.S. 441 is being made to help keep up with the traffic that the distribution centers, like Alachua Commerce Center, have created. It will provide much needed relief to the Gainesville community and allow Alachua residents to avoid some of the current congestion and traffic that is currently a problem.
By Cindy Swirko | Staff writer
In 2003, a traffic study by Walmart concluded that a new Interstate 75 interchange would not be needed to handle the truck traffic generated by its then-proposed distribution center in Alachua.
Ten years later, work is about to start on a new southbound ramp at a cost of $8 million to handle the train of semis that back up on U.S. 441 from a cluster of warehouses including Walmart’s.
Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper said the new ramp will provide welcome relief in the city.
“They will put in a long ramp so people won’t have to stop at the light,” Coerper said. “It will keep the traffic flowing on 441. It gets really backed up. This should alleviate a lot of congestion there in the mornings.”
Meanwhile, opponents of a Walmart distribution center a decade ago who predicted horrendous traffic can say, “I told you so.”
Among the distribution center opponents was Kiera Fitzgerald.
“We had a lot to say back then, but no one was listening,” Fitzgerald said last week. “Anyone who drives the area and deals with the interchange ...knows that the area is overloaded.”
Fitzgerald said she avoids the interchange by taking back roads to and from work. In the process, she skips shopping at Hitchcock’s Market and other local stores on U.S. 441 near the interchange.
Eastbound drivers on U.S. 441 who want to go south on I-75 now must turn left onto a circular ramp on the north side of U.S. 441.
The new ramp is being built on the south side of U.S. 441 where a KFC used to be. Drivers will be able to veer right onto the straight new ramp, eliminating the need for loaded trucks to crawl around the circular ramp, which forces traffic to back up.
Westbound U.S. 441 traffic will continue to use the north side ramp.
Hundreds of vehicles, including many trucks from the Walmart, Dollar General and Sysco distribution centers on Alachua County Road 235A, grind through the interchange daily and head south on I-75.
A state Department of Transportation document on the project states that in 2006 an average of 969 vehicles used the southbound on-ramp at peak morning hours and 825 at peak evening hours.
District DOT spokeswoman Gina Busscher said trucks are the primarily reason for the new ramp.
“We've done a lot of study on it and the main reason for this is all of those trucks coming from the distribution centers,” Busscher said. “The trucks have to turn onto a ramp at such a slow speed, and then merge over a hill.”
Dollar General was the first retailer to build a massive warehouse in Alachua. When Walmart proposed its distribution center, it created a rift in the town.
Supporters said it would create jobs, spur the economy and lower taxes. Opponents said it would create too much truck traffic, hurt local businesses and possibly cause air and water pollution.
A Walmart traffic consultant said at the time that all intersections at the interchange would work at acceptable levels with the changing of traffic signal timing.
Opponents scoffed at that and began calling the town Truckistan.
Tamara Robbins, who was vice mayor and an opponent of the distribution center, said opponents were pressing the city to try to use growth regulations that existed at the time to get Walmart to pay for future road needs to offset its impact.
“Here we are, 10 years later, and the revamping is being done,” Robbins said. “Now it's being built with public money and the distribution centers that are putting the demand on it are not having to pay anything.”
A development company associated with the Walmart project paid $500,000 for a traffic study when the distribution center was being proposed, but all of the cost of the new ramp is from state and federal funds, Busscher said.
Preliminary work on the new ramp has begun with the relocation of utilities, installation of pollution controls and other measures. Project spokeswoman Laurie Windham said heavier work is expected to begin in the coming weeks.
The new ramp will be fairly long, comparable to the southbound I-75 ramp at Northwest 39th Avenue in Gainesville, Busscher said.
Daytime lane closures on U.S. 441 will start in January, though no detours will be required, Windham said. The only potential disruptions to I-75 will be toward the end of the project when the ramp is tied into the interstate.
The work is expected to be done in early 2015. Once it is completed, the existing left-turn lane onto I-75 will be closed.
DOT is also building a park-and-ride lot in the vicinity of the new ramp for commuters who want to carpool.