A company hired by the state of Florida to build the fifth and final section of the Wekiva Parkway is ready to break ground on the 2.9-mile segment.
Officials say the parkway — a 25-mile beltway around Orlando, looping around the outer stretches of the metro area — will significantly boost economic development and improve transportation and access to jobs, retail, attractions and communities for years to come.
“It’s not very often you have a game-changing infrastructure project, but this is one of them,” said Robert Chandler, Lake County’s Economic Development director.
On Monday, work on a two-mile $38.65 million section — dubbed 2A — located north of Haas Road near Apopka between Plymouth Sorrento Road and County Road 435 (Mount Plymouth Road) began when workers began relocating gopher tortoises.
Once the tortoises are relocated, trees will be cleared in preparation for construction.
When completed, the Wekiva Parkway will run from State Road 429 in Apopka north through Lake County. People traveling east will be able to connect with Interstate 4 in Sanford or go northwest toward Mount Dora.
And since the parkway features all electronic tolling, motorists don’t even have to slow down or stop to pay their tolls if equipped with an E-Pass or SunPass.
“At a very basic level, economic development is about transportation, so the better access you have to major markets, the better your economic opportunities,” Chandler said. “We think this is going to change the entire landscape of north Lake County.”
Nearly 30 years in the making, the parkway is a cooperative effort between Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX), the Florida Department of Transportation and Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise.
The five CFX Wekiva Parkway sections are located in Orange County and a small portion in Lake County. They total 10 miles and cost more than $270 million, state officials said.
Chandler said the parkway will be key for getting from Sorrento and Mount Plymouth to Maitland, Orlando and I-4 toward Tampa, but also to north Lake County cities such as Eustis and Mount Dora.
He said its completion will also open doors for nicer housing stock and jumpstart the development of Mount Dora’s Wolfbranch Innovation District, a 1,300-acre development near State Road 46 and Round Lake Road that will feature industrial, office, retail, residential, school and church uses.
“People will have residential access taking them from 46 to the Wekiva Parkway instead of getting on 441. You can live in Lake Mary or Sanford and get here pretty easily to jobs, retail businesses, attractions and more,” he said. “With this type of project, growth is coming in; a lot of business, a lot of industry. From a government standpoint, the challenge is to stay on top of it so you’re merging and developing it correctly.”
The Mount Dora City Council will discuss moving utility lines on U.S. 441 to accommodate FDOT’s plans to widen 441 from Lincoln Avenue to Donnelly Street.
This is important because that section of the highway will connect the six-lane highway at Donnelly Street to the new six-lane highway being constructed as part of the Wekiva Parkway project at Lincoln Avenue.
Mount Dora Mayor Nick Girone said the goal is to find funding to complete the project, adding that the city is hoping for state help down the line.
Girone said since FDOT bumped up its completion date from 2019 to 2018, the city must be ready.
“The benefits are going to be beyond what we can probably imagine. It’s one of those things where people say, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Girone said. “Well, it’s here and we need to be ready for it.”
Girone said he’s noticed “for sale” signs on vacant land along 46, so it’s obvious to him that landowners are preparing as well.
“People are going to have quick access from Orlando to Mount Dora and vice versa and it’s coming quickly,” he said. “We are taking steps by starting to grow our infrastructure at the Wolfbranch Innovation District, which is right off the intersection at 46.”
To ensure that happens properly, Girone said city officials are looking at hiring an economic development director or bringing a company on board to position the city to take advantage of the opportunities the road will create.
“When the parkway is finished, it’s going to have a great impact on Mount Dora’s future. That’s what we’re hoping. There will be all kinds of opportunities to attract businesses and help our tax base and we want to make sure we have everything in place,” Girone said.