Florida 500: History of the Florida Turnpike (Part 2)

When the Turnpike was originally proposed the road was supposed to travel thirty five miles east of Orlando. Thomas B. Manual, a Broward County Commissioner and chair of the Turnpike Commission sought to link southeast Florida with the First Coast.  Ferris Bryant, an influential legislator from Ocla, pushed Governor LeRoy Collins. Bryant, using his considerable statewide political clout (he’d succeed Collins as Governor) to justify pulling the Turnpike through the center of the state while the newly planned Interstate Highway system connected Jacksonville and Miami.

The original Turnpike that was built in 1957 terminated at State Road 70 in Fort Pierce. The extension of the highway from Fort Pierce to Wildwood and a connection with the new Interstate 75 was opened in 1964. At the time Orlando was sleepy city, though it was by far the largest inland urban area in the state. But when Walt Disney decided to build an amusement park in the area, the Turnpike became an even more useful connection to the area. The “Father of the Turnpike”,  Manual originally was not inclined to extend the Turnpike from Fort Pierce into the central part of the state. His original vision was the connect the tourist oriented coastal towns between Fort Lauderdale and St Augustine and until Bryant and Orlando Banker Billy Dial prevailed on Manual in 1959, the extension of the highway to go towards Orlando was not approved. Manual was a committed partisan against the rural dominated “Pork Chop Gang” in the legislature and thus relations between him and Bryant were not always smooth.

The Space boom of the 1960s was not confined to the areas immediately around Titusville and Cocoa. Orlando, thirty five miles West felt the profound impact of boom. Martin Anderson the owner of the Orlando Sentinel advocated a strong transportation and road system for Central Florida. Previously in 1958, Martin Marrieta had opened a plant in Orlando on S.R. 528 (now the plant is on S.R. 482/Sand Lake Road). With the plant in Orlando and Cape Canaveral to the east, an efficient road that could transport rockets, and other Martin Marrieta products to the Cape was essential.

The Orange County Expressway Authority was formed in 1963, and in 1967 the Bee Line Expressway, with the exception of a surface road portion along McCoy Road by what is now Orlando Int’l Airport was completed almost to the Orange/Brevard County line where it dumped traffic to SR 407. (the county line by the way is the St John’s River which is little wider than a canal at this point) The Expressway Authority did not have the legal right to build the road into Brevard County and many Brevard residents were opposed to the road being built.

After many political machinations too lengthy to discuss here, the Florida Turnpike Authority took over the road and was able to secure the funding and political support to connect the existing Bee Line/SR 528 past the St John’s River to the Bennett Causeway which terminated at Cape Canaveral. A route that dipped further south was at one time considered as was upgrading SR 407 to serve as the eastern leg of the highway.

The portion of the road adjoining Orlando Int’l Airport was eventually turned into a freeway and exists were also added west of the Turnpike as the tourism industry and International Drive became prominent and also at the Eastern Beltway, now the Central Florida Greenway. The latter exit opened in 1990 and gave the Bee Line direct access to the University of Central Florida and Downtown Orlando via SR 417 and SR 408.

SR 408 was built in the early 1970s as the Holland East West Expressway, named for US Senator Spessard Holland who had just recently passed away. The road was originally built to alleviate the increasing traffic on SR 50/Colonial Blvd through Downtown Orlando. The East-West Expressway was extended eastward towards UCF in 1987 and westward to the Turnpike near Ocoee in 1989.  The connection to the Turnpike and towards UCF were completed with the next big toll road building projects in Orange County in mind. The East-West Expressway stands today as a clear example of how the state of Florida and local governments moved ahead with the building of major highways despite the antiquated funding formulas the federal highway administration and DOT used which continue to shortchange Florida up into the present day.

In 1988, the first portion of what is now the Central Florida Greenway was completed from the East West Expressway northward into southern Seminole County. At the same time the proposed Central Connector that would have run from Orlando International Airport right into Downtown Orlando was killed. Ironically, this road was probably the most useful proposed road in Central Florida, but its building would have uprooted thousands of residents. Ultimately the human cost was considered in the late 1980s and early 1990s in a way that it was not considered in the late 1950 and early 1960s when Florida’s Interstate Highways cut right through vibrant urban communities in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Pensacola and Jacksonville.

In 1993, the Southern Connector from SR 535 near Disney to the Bee Line was completed and connected to a lower dip of the original Eastern Beltway that was completed in 1990. By 1996 the Greenway dipped down through Disney property and terminated on I-4 near the Polk/Osceola line. To the north it ended near  Lake Mary and was connected to I-4 just south of Sanford in 2002. This highway still sees light traffic today and has been dubbed by many sceptic, “the road to nowhere.”

The ascension of the Republican Party to control of the State Legislature in 1996 gave Central Florida unprecedented power. Both the Senate President, Toni Jennings, and the House Speaker, Danny Webster were from Orange County. Additionally, the influential Tom Feeney and the Democratic Senate Leader Buddy Dyer were both from the area.

This provided the impetus to build the Apopka Connector/SR 429. This road has been built in two stages and now runs from near Disney World to US 441 at the western edge of Apopka. Future plans to build the road as connector to the Greenway have been hotly debated due to the Environmental sensitivity of the area. The road now known as the Daniel Webster Western Beltway will also connect with the new John Land Apopka Expressway when that is completed in 2009. The John Land Apopka Expressway will connect with SR414/Maitland Road and provide direct easy access from Apopka, Zellwood and Mount Dora to I-4. Also notable is that two living politicians, Danny Webster and John Land are honored on the names of these newer roads.

Central Florida’s highway network is impressive by the standard of any urbanized area.  It’s even more impressive when you consider the vast majority highways were built without significant federal help and inspite of the federal government’s long standing discrimination against Florida for highway funds.