After 18 years of lobbying, hoping, praying, haggling, planning, bickering and finally building, the Matanzas Woods Parkway interchange with I-95 opened to traffic today as a ceremonial ribbon-cutting that drew more than 100 people exhaled at the end of two decades of efforts. In the past several years, those efforts accelerated and took shape from drawings to asphalt and reconfigured landscape under the guidance of Faith Al-Khatib, the county engineer whose smiles this afternoon rivaled the breadth of the intersection.
“It has been very long, long hard work, many hours, many coordinations, we had to follow the process, but, it’s done, we are here today,” al-Khatib said.
And it got done in 10 months: it was just last May that most of the same people had gathered on grounds a few feet lower, but on the same spot, to mark the groundbreaking of the mostly state-funded project: $9 million for construction, $12.6 million overall, including design and, at the end, an additional $1 million for lighting.
“It’s one of those things that when you get to the end, you forget about all the struggles along the way,” County Administrator Craig Coffey said, “kind of like–I can’t even remember that stuff anymore.”
One of the challenges: the interchange “came this close to not being justified,” al-Khatib said, citing traffic numbers that had the project at the edge of feasibility, in state officials’ eyes.
The interchange was a county project, just as Matanzas Woods Parkway was a county road. But no longer: the interchange is now under state control, and Matanzas Woods Parkway will transfer to Palm Coast under a prior agreement–which is one reason Palm Coast officials were as numerous as county officials today.
“You’ve heard so many attributes–what is so good about this,” Mayor Jon Netts told the crowd. “First of all, Palm Coast, five miles wide but 18 miles long: this is a tremendous asset for the people who live in the northern half of our city, an the northern half of our county. That’s great. We’ve already had inquiries from commercial entities,”
The more immediate benefit is to residents of that area of Palm Coast. Take Angie Colaluca, who lives on nearby Bickshire Lane and who was just getting ready to drive to the Italian-American Club for bingo night. “It’s easy this way instead of going all the way into town and around the way we used to go, before this opened up. It’s easier.”
It’ll also keep Colaloca off of U.S. 1. “I don’t have to go all the way to St. Augustine when I go to the Mayo Clinic, and we also go to St. Augustine for blood work, before we go to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville,” Colaluca, who’s lived in the neighborhood 25 years, said. Now, she said, it’ll take her to I-95 immediately, instead of having to drive all the way to St. Augustine to get on.
There’s another big reason for the welcome change: Eric and Mary Rufrano remember the wildfires of 1998. They were in the area, which was devastated by the fires that burned some 84,000 acres and destroyed 71 houses. Former Gov. Then-Gov. Lawton Chiles ordered a mandatory evacuation for Flagler County, which clogged the roads and made the need for an additional interchange apparent.
The Rufranos had moved after the fires. They had little children and thought the interchange was going in right then, 15, 16 years ago, and didn’t want to live with their children right by the interchange. They didn’t figure it would take this long to be built. “But it’s good because it was chaos trying to get out of here. It took us six hours just to get to St. Augustine during the fire incident,” Mary said. The Rufranos now live off of Bird of Paradise.
Laura Horn, on the other hand, who’s lived in the same neighborhood for two years, is moving: the noise from I-95 has been too much. “The only nice thing is it straightens out Old Kings Road,” Horn said, referring to the related project that will connect Old Kings Road to Palm Harbor Parkway in a straighter route.
Those driving patterns will a make difference in the rest of the city.
“Palm Coast Parkway is getting busier every day, you see with the three lanes, so we’re just hoping to take some of the traffic off of there,” Mark Carman, who heads the sheriff’s office’s Palm Coast precinct, said. “And it’ll save some people some mileage, some gas mileage.”
Rebecca DeLorenzo, president of the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce: “It’s going to be a good opportunity for economic development, not only in this area, but with some of our planned developments that have been sitting kind of on a shelf, Palm Coast Park and some other things on the U.S. 1 corridor, hopefully we’ll get those jump-started now with this new exchange.” (Palm Coast Park is a major planned development stretching along U.S.1 into the Matanzas Woods area.)
The interchange will alleviate traffic on Palm Coast Parkway and presumably reduce some traffic on U.S. 1, and enable the whole Matanzas Woods area, Palm Coast’s B, L, F and stretches of the C Sections much easier access to I-95. Conversely, it could also provide those neighborhood’s residents a more attractive (or at least a quicker) route to St. Augustine and St. Johns County, possibly reducing their commerce in Palm Coast proper. Jason DeLorenzo, the Palm Coast city council member, says that’s unlikely “because it’s already an easy enough drive to go straight up U.S. 1 if that was your intention, or up Old Kings Road,” he said. “So if your plan was already to go up north, I don’t think this will affect it in any way.”
Rather, he said, the interchange will have the same effect as the opening of Royal palm Parkway, and east-west axis at the mid-south end of Palm Coast, alleviating traffic patterns but not diminishing traffic overall in the city.
Long-range plans for Palm Coast had originally envisioned five interchanges off of I-95, with one at White View Parkway, near the heart of Palm Coast, and one in the Seminole Woods area. DeLorenzo things the White View interchange will almost certainly not be developed because it’s been overtaken by development patterns. But in the long run, if it’s preceded by significant development, maybe Seminole Woods will be next with an interchange. If that’s so, it’s a long way off.
Barbara Revels chairs the Flagler County Commission and is its only Flagler County native. She can remember the days before Interstates, let alone the multiplying of interchanges. “When you lived in Flagler County and particularly Flagler Beach,” Revels said, “everybody went to Daytona for all their shopping, and so you went A1A or US1, and my family’s family was in Tampa. There was no I-4 and no I-95, you had to drive all the back roads to go to T, so having I-95 come through–well, the biggest, immediate result is that it killed Downtown Bunnell.” (Today’s ceremony included representatives from every local government except Bunnell.) “Bunnell was a vibrant business district of gas stations and restaurants, all that traffic going south used. So that was pretty devastating for a long period of time. Bunnell is still recovering.”
Then came I-95 and the first interchange, with State Road 100, followed by the interchange with Palm Coast Parkway, once known as Exit 91C. Revels has strong memories of Flagler County before its booming developments, but she also sees the benefits of a particular type of development. “It’s hard to imagine what would have happened if ITT had not come and developed a third of the county land mass. I think what would have happened is that it would have developed more haphazardly with smaller, less well funded developers, and we would have had a worse planned community, and also it forced FC to become much more professional, much faster in regulating development, than they ever would have if ITT hadn’t come.”
Coffey, the county administrator, summed up the project this way: “I’m proud of our team, and I’m proud of the things they’ve been able to accomplish. We don’t have huge staffs, we’ve just got a lot of good people. It’s priceless, it’s like one of those credit card commercials, this, this, this and having a good quality team of people to work with is priceless. We’ve had good support from the board,” that is, the county commission, “e’ve had good consultants all along. In fact Andy Dance, we forgot to mention him, but he did the landscaping, so we need to give him some credit for that, this is something he should be proud of and you’ll see all the time.” Dance, the school board member, is also a landscape architect and the owner of Andrew S. Dance and Associates.