The I-4/State Road 33 interchange has not been upgraded since it was built in the 1960s. | City of Lakeland Traffic Operations

One month after Florida’s legislative session ended, the fate of Lakeland’s highest-priority project is still uncertain.

City officials were thrilled to see $197 million for a complete redesign of the Interstate 4/State Road 33 interchange included as one of 20 projects in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ $7 billion “Moving Florida Forward” proposal to relieve traffic congestion across the state.

It’s a project Lakeland leaders have spent more than 15 years lobbying for, and it’s crucial to their vision of an “innovation district” at the northeast edge of the city anchored by Florida Polytechnic University and the SunTrax autonomous vehicle testing facility.

However, when the House and Senate approved the state budget on May 5 as one of their final actions before leaving Tallahassee, they included just $4 billion of the $7 billion price tag for DeSantis’ 20 high-priority congestion-relief projects.

City leaders have been waiting for guidance from the Florida Department of Transportation about what the missing $3 billion means for their long-sought project.

The exit 38/S.R. 33 interchange is the only one on I-4 that hasn’t been upgraded since it was built in the 1960s. The proposed funding would speed up construction by at least four years – moving it from 2028 to 2024.

In a “legislative wrap-up” presentation to commissioners Monday, city lobbyist David Shepp provided some insight.

“The big question right now is the Legislature funded it at $4 billion, not $7 billion, and they did not include the $3 billion in redirects when they finalized their budget,” Shepp said. As of Monday morning, DOT had not announced its plans, most likely because the governor has not yet signed the budget.

However, Shepp said: “What we have been told is they plan on working on all 20 projects.”

“We've been told by DOT Central that they plan on implementing all 20 projects.”

david shepp, city of lakeland lobbyist

Shepp explained that it was never intended for all of the projects to start in the coming year. Some of the projects on the list had anticipated start dates of 2024 – including the I-4/S.R. 33 interchange, which is shovel-ready. Others that have not been in the works quite as long have start dates of 2025 or 2026.

That gives the Legislature two more years to come up with the missing money.

“We assume they're going to try to do them in timing order, so they can come back and get that $3 billion next year,” Shepp said. “We're still waiting on clarifications, so I can't give you a firm answer at this point … Only that we've been told by DOT Central that they plan on implementing all 20 projects. So to the best of our knowledge, we should be able to get that in full.”

“In full” is an important distinction because the $197 million would fund four separate projects:

  • Widening the 2.5-mile segment from Old Combee Road to south of University Boulevard from two lanes to four lanes with a 22-foot median and two roundabouts.
  • Widening the 1.5-mile segment from south of University Boulevard to north of Tomkow Road from two lanes to four lanes with a 30-foot median and two roundabouts.
  • Creating one wildlife crossing as a bridge over I-4.
  • Creating another wildlife crossing as an underpass beneath S.R. 33.

Without “Moving Florida Forward,” the timetable would revert to DOT’s five-year work program. That plan has a smaller scope version of the project slated for 2028, with only the interchange and no road widening or wildlife crossings.

Chuck Barmby, the city’s Planning & Transportation manager, said he remains “concerned but hopeful.”

“With the wave of growth we’re seeing across Florida, this is too important of a transportation investment package not to be fully funded,” Barmby said.

Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley said, “This is something we’ve been working on since I was elected to the commission … State Road 33 is the last interchange on Interstate 4 that has been upgraded or touched since it was built. So this is a really imperative piece of the entire network in the state of Florida.”

In anticipation of the project, commissioners voted Monday to authorize payment of up to $10.4 million to FDOT to remove and relocate city-owned water and electric utilities.

Deputy City Attorney Ramona Sirianni told commissioners on Friday that widening S.R. 33 and replacing the overpass on I-4 is a “major undertaking” that also involves drainage improvements. One problem is that Lakeland Electric and the city’s Water Utilities Department have a matrix of pipelines in the state’s right-of-way.

“We’re required to compensate for removing those. It’s our financial responsibility,” Sirianni explained.

The water utility is responsible for $6.96 million of the cost, which is included in the department’s 2024 budget. Water Utilities Engineer Supervisor Robert Kniss said part of the money will be used to upgrade a “completely obliterated” wastewater line along State Road 33.

“We had a desire to upsize it, so it kind of worked out,” Kniss said. “The force main was 12 inches (in diameter) and it’s going to go to 24-inch.” The old line will be removed and disposed of.

Lakeland Electric is responsible for the remaining $3.46 million, which will come out its fuel budget. Fuels Manager Tory Bombard said much of the cost is to dig up and dispose of a 3-mile natural gas pipeline that is no longer in service.

The utility has been working to “get out of the pipeline-ownership business” by building a newer 1.5-mile pipeline that links to its Lake Parker pipeline and transferring ownership of it to Florida Gas Transmission.

City Manager Shawn Sherrouse said some of the utility relocation costs might be reimbursable. His staff has reached out to the governor’s office but has not yet received an answer.

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Cindy Glover moved to Lakeland in 2021 after spending two decades in South Florida. She was a crime reporter, City Hall reporter and chief political writer for newspapers including the Albuquerque Journal and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. She spent a year as a community engagement coordinator for the City of Lakeland before joining Jazbablog. Reach her at [email protected] or 561-212-3429.

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