Article by: Roxanne Brown

For the full story visit: Daily Commercial

The Central Florida Expressway Authority on Thursday unveiled a new, five-mile stretch of the Wekiva Parkway that will eventually create a loop around Orlando.

It was the second segment of the $1.6 billion project to open, following a 3.14-mile stretch completed by the Florida Department of Transportation last year.

Public officials and residents from across Central Florida attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony before the first motorists rolled across it. By late afternoon, both the north and southbound lanes of the connector highway were opened to traffic, and, according to CFX spokeswoman Mary Brooks, getting a lot of use.

“It’s amazing to see how many cars are already using it. This is just the beginning,” Brooks said.

The completed sections, dubbed 1A and 1B, cost $102.6 million to build.

The road will extend from where the State Road 429 ends at the Connector Road near U.S. Highway 441, to a new interchange at Kelly Park Road.

“The 5-mile stretch includes interchanges near U.S. 441 at Connector Road and Kelly Park Road, along with bridges at Southfork Drive, Yothers Road, Ponkan Road and other locations,” a press release about the project said.

The parkway is expected to provide a much-needed alternative to local roads, including Plymouth Sorrento Road.

“The parkway story is truly a story of perseverance and collaboration,” said Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, a CFX board member, during the ceremony.

For Lake County, especially in the northern areas including Mount Dora and Eustis, the Wekiva Parkway is being touted as a game changer.

“For years, the only access to Orange County from Lake County and the Mount Dora area has been U.S. 441. Now we have the CFX forward 453/429 expressway coming in this area, which will change the timing and ability to get to Orlando and everywhere in between,” Lake County Public Works Director Jim Stivender said. “This is an exciting time for people flowing in and out of Lake County to be able to get to the Orlando and Metro Area and vice versa.”

Eustis City Manager Ron Neibert said the project is an important one as far as transportation routes go.

CFX has dubbed the project as a “mobility solution.”

“I think Eustis and the whole Lake County area will be able to benefit from what it will bring, including new developments, new projects, new investment and job opportunities for the people of Lake County,” Neibert said.

In January 2016, the completion of a $25.48 million, 3.14-mile stretch built by the Florida Department of Transportation served to help alleviate traffic on State Road 46 between U.S. 441 and County Road 435.

Later this year, the FDOT is expected to finish the rebuilding of the U.S. 441 and SR 46 interchange in Mount Dora, and in the spring of 2018, Brooks said some of the CFX and FDOT sections of the parkway will connect.

When it’s complete, the $1.6 billion Wekiva Parkway – which includes nine sections, or 15 miles of road by FDOT, and five sections, or 10 miles by CFX, will finish Central Florida’s beltway around Orlando, looping around the outer stretches of the metro area.

The expressway will be the first in Central Florida to feature all-electronic tolling, which is intended for customer convenience. Drivers with an E-Pass or SunPass won’t need to stop at all to be charged automatically, and those with no transponders will pay the toll via the TOLL-BY-PLATE program.

The expressway was designed in an environmentally conscious way.

“Knowing that there would be impacts, the impacts were minimized. They thought of animal trail crossings, and trails for humans are planned as part of this project. The preservation of natural habitats and watch tracks was also thought of and now, that’s a reality,” said Lake County Commissioner Sean Parks, also a board member with CFX.

And economically, the project will connect business districts together and bring people back and forth between them more easily.

Mount Dora Mayor Nick Girone said the city’s Wolf Branch Innovation Business District was created with the Wekiva Parkway in mind.

He also said the parkway will create opportunities for cross-city collaboration on projects since getting around Central Florida will be made easier.

“This project has been a long time coming. During the last few years, Mount Dora and Apopka have been talking about future partnerships. They are working on their innovation district and we have ours and both of these projects will be connected by this road,” Girone said.