First Coast Outer Beltway: Should it be Built?

February 22, 2010 107 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The First Coast Outer Beltway is projected to cost $1.8 billion. It would run 45 miles from Interstate 95 through St. Johns, Clay and Duval Counties to connect with Interstate 10, via Cecil Commerce Parkway. Metro Jacksonville asks: Is it really needed?

The First Coast Outer Beltway will take a serpentine route through the counties of St. Johns, Clay and Duval. Many believe future drivers will choose to drive miles out of the way and pay tolls in order to bypass traffic congestion on I-295, Blanding, Roosevelt and San Jose Boulevards. Others believe this highway will turn Clay and St. Johns Counties into economic powerhouses.

Why is the Outer Beltway Needed?

FDOT established three goals to guide the development of potential solutions to existing transportation problems in the project area:

1. Provide additional capacity to improve current and future transportation network deficiencies.

2. Promote and support employment and economic development.

3. Improve emergency evacuation. update/SJRC EIS/01_(Purpose & Need).pdf

Is the First Coast Outer Beltway a mistake in the making?

Considering that communities across America are attempting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled, the First Coast Outer Beltway may be an enormous misallocation of our region's resources. Should it really cost billions of dollars to help alleviate traffic on Blanding Blvd or encourage sprawl across environmentally sensitive land in Clay and St. Johns Counties? Are there better alternatives worth exploring, such as a combination of commuter rail, ITS, and another river crossing for encouraging sustainable economic development?

Nevertheless, the Outer Beltway is not the first "out-of-the-way" toll road to be financed and mainatained by the private sector. The Southern Connector (I-185) in Greenville, SC was built in 2001, with $200 million in privately held bonds. However, after years of drawing less drivers than estimates anticipated, Greenville's "Outer Beltway" has fallen into default and taxpayers may be on the hook. Is North Florida prepared for the Greenville experience?

Jacksonville would be smart to learn from Greenville's Southern Connector (I-185) experience.

The Upstate's Southern Connector is in default

The idea of creating a bypass under the Greenville area was a good one in theory. Anyone who has driven through the headache that is traffic around Interstates 85 and 385 will agree that area is to be avoided if practicable. Thus, it was proposed a little over a decade ago to extend the short Interstate 185 under the Greenville metro area and connect it with Interstate 385 in the Mauldin area. The Southern Connector was born.

The Southern Connector was to be funded privately, through a nonprofit cooperation, dubbed Connector Association 2000. The nonprofit sold bonds to finance the road. The road was licensed by the South Carolina Department of Transportation. Tolls from the road were to be collected to pay back the bondholders for their investment.

The problem with the Southern Connector is that the traffic and tolls expected never materialized. For whatever reason, the income just did not come in.

That lack of tolls resulted in Event Notice 2010-1 from Connector Association, Inc, issued on January 11th, 2010. In that Event Notice, it was made clear to the public that $200,177,680 in bonds issued by Connector 2000 Associates, Inc, and underwritten by Lehman Brothers, Inc and Mesirow Financial, Inc. were in default. Indeed, the debt service payment due on January 1st, 2010 was not paid.

Thus, Standard and Poor’s downgraded the Southern Connecter bonds to a grade of “D.” That rating is so low, it is not even described in detail on the Standard and Poor’s website. In sum, the investment in the Southern Connector was a failure by those who chose to do so.

What happens next? Who knows? There appear to be efforts in the South Carolina House and in the SC DOT to refinance the bonds that the Southern Connector has defaulted on. That will probably take some sort of payment from the taxpayers of South Carolina to make happen. Others contend that the state could just take over the road. No matter what course is taken, it is going to cost money and it is going to be tricky to get over the failure of the Southern Connector.

Such opens the question about how wise any other “public-prvate” ventures might be for South Carolina. Some in the General Assembly are contending that a new Interstate 73 in the Pee Dee be funded similar to the Southern Connector. They argue tolls from people outside South Carolina will fund the road as those outsides travel to the Grand Strand. Fair enough.

But, the Southern Connector should give the taxpayer pause. For, if such a project encourages private risk takers to invest in it, and if it fails, efforts are made to use public money to try to make those private investors whole, what are the savings to the taxpayer? Further, how many of us, as individuals, who made a bad investment in a company will have the government make us whole? Why should those who invest in a “private-public” road be guaranteed a profit for their risks with taxpayer money?

This image highlights the proposed Outer Beltway's interchange with a future SR 218 Bypass.  While much of the financial focus has been on the private sector funding the $1.8 billion toll road, who will be responsible for funding the construction of the roads to divert traffic to the beltway?

First Coast Outer Beltway Public Meeting Schedule

Florida Department of Transportation officials want citizen feeback on whether the First Coast Outer Beltway should have a bridge over the St. Johns River north or south of Green Cove Springs. They also want feedback on where the road should meet with I-95 in St. Johns County.

The Outer Beltway will be discussed at four meetings in the next two weeks. Information on the project can be found at People wishing to comment on the project can speak at the meeting or e-mail Brandi Vittur at

The public meeting times are:

- Monday, Feb. 22 World Golf Village Renaissance Resort 500 S. Legacy Trail St. Augustine Doors open: 3 p.m. Presentation: 4:30 p.m. with a repeat at 7 p.m.

- Thursday, Feb. 25 St. Johns Community College Thrasher Horne Conference Center 283 College Drive Orange Park Doors open: 3 p.m. Presentation: 4:30 p.m. with a repeat at 7 p.m.

- Tuesday, March 2 Clay County Fairgrounds 2496 W. Florida 16 Green Cove Springs Doors open: 3 p.m. Presentation: 4:30 p.m. with a repeat at 7 p.m.

- Thursday, March 4 Cecil Conference Center 12541 Lake Newman St. Jacksonville Doors open: 4:30 p.m. Presentation: 6:30 p.m.

Florida Department of Transportation

Update by Ennis Davis