Florida is one of the fastest growing areas in the United States gaining 900 new residents each day. Much of this growth has occurred along the Interstate 4 (I-4) corridor which includes the urban centers of Tampa, Orlando and Daytona Beach. Due to rapid development and associated habitat fragmentation adjacent to I-4, identifying potential locations for wildlife crossings and protecting remaining habitat connections between south and north Florida has become a race against time. There are three general areas where suitable habitat linkages remain that maintain continuous habitat connections across I-4. One of these locations has been addressed with inclusion of wildlife crossings, two others remain for consideration of wildlife crossings. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) uses several criteria in the decision-making process to determine whether to expend public funds on a wildlife crossing structure. Among the criteria considered in the process are location suitability, wildlife-vehicle collisions, wildlife telemetry data, adjacent protected conservation lands, crossing design, availability of right of way, roadway geometry, future road improvements, and cost.
FDOT utilizes motion activated trail cameras and placed these cameras on both sides of I-4 to better understand the type and abundance of wildlife in the vicinity of each identified potential crossing. The area adjacent to I-4 has been a challenge to evaluate for siting wildlife crossings with sufficient connecting habitat corridors and ensuring that conservation lands exist or are secured adjacent to a proposed wildlife crossing. FDOT has found it beneficial to collaborate with private landowners, local and state agencies, conservation groups and land trusts early in planning phases.
In one example, the I-4 Saddle Creek Crossing, a lack of adjacent conservation lands was identified as the last major hurdle to connecting the Peace River corridor to the expansive Green Swamp conservation lands to the north. Initially cost estimates for an underpass exceeded $15 million which did not include legacy costs for the ultimate buildout of the Interstate. FDOT investigated the potential for an overpass which would require right of way acquisition for the touchdown areas on both sides of I-4, but cost only $8 million which accommodates the ultimate buildout.
Another example is an underpass crossing along SR 33 which parallels I-4 immediately to the north. Other local roadways (currently with low traffic volumes) inhibiting wildlife movement will need to be monitored for future retrofits once the I-4 and SR 33 crossings are constructed.
FDOT is currently constructing a new wildlife crossing re-connecting two regions of the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area which was bisected by the construction of Interstate 4. Parallel twin bridges with 8-foot vertical clearance will be provided to span a hydrologic channel lined with dry shelves for the animals to traverse I-4.