Hurricane Matthew Forces Closures To Protect Plaza Staff
Category 4 Hurricane Bears Down On Coast
The virulence of Hurricane Matthew and the size of its wind field has prompted officials with Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise to close the service plazas along Florida’s Turnpike. Nearly all plazas were closed by 7:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, officials wrote in a news release. Only The Okahumpka Service Plaza was left off the list of closures.
The plaza closings were effected at the following times:
Authorities announced they would reopen the plazas after the storm was no longer a threat. “All Turnpike Service Plazas will re-open after Matthew passes and all the structures are deemed safe for operation and occupation,” the release read.
Editor's note: This page was updated at 9:16 p.m. EDT to reflect the following changes: Shows updated closing times for Turkey Lake and Canoe Creek Service Plazas. Changed first paragraph to show all plazas closed except Okahumpa, near Wildwood.
Category 4 Storm Clearing Bahamas And Speeding Toward U.S. Coast
Hurricane Warnings Extend North From Broward County Into Southern Georgia
The outer feeder bands of Hurricane Matthew have already begun whipping around drivers on Florida’s Turnpike in South Florida, particularly Miami-Dade County and Broward County, the first to begin feeling the impact of the storm. For those still driving Florida’s Turnpike this morning, officials have urged caution on the roads.
The Florida Highway Patrol was reporting heavy congestion on State Road 60 in Indian River County, where traffic is heading westbound toward Florida’s Turnpike in an effort to outrun the storm. Matthew is expected to graze the coastline along the Treasure Coast and Space Coast of Florida, even as its immense wind field influences most of the eastern peninsula and into the Florida Keys.
Tolls were suspended on most portions of Florida’s Turnpike and most of Central Florida’s toll roads Tuesday night, as officials prepared for evacuations from communities across a broad swath of the Florida’s east coast, particularly from Palm Beach County northward. The FHP reported all service plazas remained open, and customers were being permitted to fill up a five-gallon (19 liter) container of fuel, in addition to a vehicle fill-up.
High winds, which are already gusting across South Florida, are expected to get significantly worse through the early and mid-afternoon hours, reaching high tropical storm-force early Thursday evening. Some areas are expected to get hurricane force gusts, and sustained hurricane force winds are expected to impact northern segments of Florida’s Turnpike and, in particular, the east leg of the Beachline Expressway.
As of 11 a.m., hurricane warnings were extended farther north, well into South Carolina, and the storm, itself, had gained strength and reclaimed its status as a category 4 hurricane. However, the storm is more compact than it had been, even as it has regained strength. Hurricane-force winds extend outward about 60 miles from the center, but tropical storm -force winds only extend outward about 160 miles, a contraction of about 15 miles from the previous advisory. Maximum sustained winds are at 140 miles per hour, with higher gusts.
Editor's note: Some supplemental information has been added to this report since it was first published. Information about the service plazas was added at 12:20 p.m. EDT.
Category 3 Storm Continues Pushing Through Bahamas, Aiming For Florida Coastline
Tolls have been suspended on nearly all of Florida’s toll roads and the mainline of Florida’s Turnpike due to the approach of Hurricane Matthew. Chad Huff, spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation, announced the toll suspensions late this afternoon in a written release. The suspensions take effect at 8 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time and will remain in effect for the duration of the storm.
The suspensions will be in effect for the following roadways:
Florida’s Turnpike Mainline, from Exit 2X in North Miami Beach/Miramar, north to the mainline terminus at Wildwood’s Exit 309.
Huff warned drivers to follow road signs and pay attention to message signs on the roadways. Specifically, he stated there would be directional signs posted at toll plazas, warning drivers to use extra care, as the plazas will be unmanned. “[Drivers] are advised to obey directional signs posted in advance of toll plazas and exercise caution when approaching the plaza structure.”
The National Hurricane Center’s 5 p.m. hurricane advisory shows the track of Matthew has jogged back to the west, putting the storm just offshore of Stuart by Friday morning. With the windfield on Hurricane Matthew extending outward about 175 miles from the center, even an offshore storm is likely to cause extreme high winds on approach, making travel hazardous beginning around midday Thursday, according to forecasters.
Tolls will remain suspended until after the storm passes and officials have assessed damage on the roadways, Huff said.
The majority of Florida’s east coast remains under a hurricane warning this afternoon, this as Hurricane Matthew continues its trek into the Bahamas, and eventually into the Gulf Stream near Florida. The National Hurricane Center’s latest forecast track has pushed the cone slightly to the east, which could bode well for drivers on Florida’s Turnpike, particularly in South Florida. The storm’s closest approach is expected late Thursday into Friday morning.
The storm system has prompted emergency operations offices to open across the state, and many government offices and schools, particularly in communities along the eastern shore, will be shuttered Thursday and Friday. The Florida Department of Transportation has been holding emergency meetings with various state officials, including discussions with Governor Rick Scott and federal authorities.
However, with the latest track pushing Hurricane Matthew to the east, FDOT will leave Florida’s Turnpike operating as usual, but with additional roadway patrols. There were “no toll suspensions as of yet,” said Chad Huff, an FDOT spokesman, via email. “All Turnpike service plazas are operating normally with food and fuel.”
Whether there is a decision to suspend tolls will depend greatly on whether Hurricane Matthew either strengthens or turns west into the peninsula. The current track still has the system coming perilously close to shore, but farther north than the early morning track, pushing many of the toll roads in Florida out of the most dangerous parts of the storm.
However, the NHC wind field forecast still puts much of Florida’s Turnpike under the lash of tropical-storm force winds. The likelihood of tropical storm-force winds hitting portions of Florida’s Turnpike remains above 70%, and as high as 90% along the Treasure Coast, which includes the communities of Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie and Stuart.
The NHC’s next full forecast is due to be released at 5 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.
System Expected To Strengthen Before Coming Near Florida Coast
The track of Hurricane Matthew saw the storm clear the island nation of Cuba during the early morning hours today, as the storm set its sights on the Bahamas and, next, Florida. Forecasters have downgraded the storm to a category 3 hurricane, but no further weakening is expected. In fact, forecasters believe the system will strengthen some as it traverses the Bahamas, following the path of least resistance through the island nation. By Thursday morning, the storm is expected to be off the coast of Florida.
Because of that track, influenced by a high-pressure ridge in the Atlantic, Florida’s east coast is now, largely, under a hurricane warning. Those warnings went up late Tuesday night, only hours after the east coast had been put under tropical storm and hurricane watches. The current hurricane warning area covers the Florida coastline from Golden Beach, in Miami-Dade County, to Sebastian Inlet, at the north end of Indian River County. Hurricane watches are in effect from the inlet north to Fernandina Beach, adjacent to Jacksonville. Tropical storm warnings are in effect for Miami-Dade County and portions of the upper Florida Keys.
State transportation officials are expected to make a decision today about whether to suspend tolls on Florida’s Turnpike. It is unclear how soon such a decision could be made; however, forecasters predict tropical storm conditions will begin to impact the South Florida coast by mid Thursday morning, with conditions deteriorating throughout the day.
It is not uncommon for authorities to suspend tolls and change travel directions on toll roads and other highways to accommodate evacuations.
Some Central Florida Toll Roads In Hurricane Watch Areas
Hurricane warnings were issued late Tuesday night for most of Florida’s east coast, from Golden Beach, on the north edge of Miami-Dade County, north to the Sebastian Inlet in Indian River County. The hurricane watch area extends north of Sebastian to the border of Volusia County and Flagler County, just north of Daytona Beach. A hurricane warning means hurricane conditions are likely within the warning area within the next 36 hours. A hurricane watch means conditions may impact the watch area within 48 hours.
Florida’s Turpnike, one of the main evacuation routes for South Florida, in the event of a direct impact, or even a glancing blow, is well inside the warning area. Most of its southern leg, from Fort Pierce, in St. Lucie County, to the start of the Homestead Extension in Miramar, are only a few miles from the coast. Much of that area is now likely to be impacted by high tropical-storm force winds and, potentially, hurricane force winds, according to the latest forecasts. Hurricane-force gusts are likely, in any case.
Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise and the Florida Department of Transportation have already been ordering construction crews to tied down equipment at construction sites. Lane barricades and barrels were ordered removed Tuesday night to prepare for added traffic. The decision to suspend tolls on Florida’s turnpike and elsewhere may come Wednesday, according to Chad Huff, from FDOT. Officials had not made that decision late Tuesday night.
The Beachline Expressway’s eastern-most leg fell within a hurricane watch area Friday evening, as well. The toll road’s length traverses central Florida from Orlando to the eastern end of Brevard County, ending at US-1 in Cocoa, which became part of the watch areas late Tuesday. A spokesman for the Central Florida Expressway Authority, Brian Hutchings, said any decisions about suspending tolls on the Beachline would be issued by the Florida’ governor, not CFX.
While Hurricane Matthew has weakened some during its trek across the western tip of Cuba, the storm remains a category 4 hurricane, with winds topping out at 130 miles per hour, according to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center. Hurricane-force winds extend outward 45 miles from the center of the storm, while tropical storm-force winds extend 175 miles from the eye.
Hurricane Watch Area Expands; Transportation Department Braces For Major Hurricane
Tropical Storm Nicole Forms In Atlantic Basin, Adding To Forecaster’s Woes
Much of Florida’s Turnpike now sits inside a hurricane watch area, now that the National Hurricane Center has issued its 8 p.m. interim advisory on Hurricane Matthew. The NHC forecast track continues to shift to the west, which compelled the agency to add more areas of inland Florida to the hurricane watch area.
Meanwhile, the Florida governor’s office today consulted with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Highway Administration and Florida Department of Transportation as emergency preparations for Matthew continue. The FDOT has ordered all construction to halt on all roadways, including all toll roads, in watch areas.
Additionally, all construction barriers are being removed on travel lanes that can be reopened. The latter is preparation for potential evacuations, which could be ordered if Matthew’s track shifts farther to the west.
While Hurricane Matthew is forecast to remain offshore of Florida, the NHC’s most recent track has shifted the storm’s path farther west, bringing the storm perilously close to Florida’s coast. While Matthew has weakened somewhat, and its wind field has contracted, hurricane-force winds still extend outward 45 miles from the center, and tropical storm-force winds extend outward for 175 miles.
Moreover, forecasters, already weary from tracking Matthew, are now issuing advisories for Tropical Storm Nicole, which formed in the open Atlantic this afternoon. However, it is not expected to pose a threat to the United States. A third system is also being monitored for potential development.
All that means that Matthew, on its current track, will be delivering high winds and rain to much of Florida’s east coast beginning Thursday. That leaves only a day for authorities to finalize emergency plans, and that is if Matthew does not slide too far to the west, which could push outer bands and wind fields onshore sooner than expected.
The NHC will release its next full advisory at 11 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.
Turnpike And Other Toll Roads In Central Florida Could Be Affected By Massive Storm
Officials with Florida’s Department of Transportation said today they do not know whether there will be a need to change traffic patterns on Florida’s Turnpike as a result of Hurricane Matthew. Much of Florida’s east coast and most of the Florida Keys are under either a tropical storm watch or a hurricane watch, after the National Hurricane Center in Miami released its 11 a.m. update today.
It is not uncommon for authorities to suspend tolls and route traffic in a specific direction, to accommodate evacuations. However, FDOT spokesman, Chad Huff, said it was too early to know whether a traffic a pattern change would happen or whether tolls might be suspended. Huff said he and other officials were very busy today in the face of Hurricane Matthew’s approach. “We wont’ know that until [Wednesday],” he told TurnpikeInfo.com.
Florida’s Turnpike runs through the middle of the peninsula at its north leg, but it turns to the east, just north of the Fort Drum Service Plaza, then runs close to Florida’s east coast, often getting within five miles of the coast. That is close enough to feel the impact of Hurricane Matthew. The storm is projecting hurricane force winds some 60 miles from the center of the storm, and tropical storm force winds extend 185 miles from the center of the storm, according to the NHC.
In Central Florida, where hurricane watches apply along the coastline, up to the Brevard County-Volusia County border, Hurricane Matthew could still create high winds and dangerous rain conditions well inland, affecting the Beachline Expressway, which runs from Interstate 95 west to Orlando. Any decision to alter traffic or suspend tolls on the Central Florida Expressway roads, however, will still come from the Florida governor’s office, said Brian Hutchings, spokesman for the CFX in Orlando.
However Hutchings did note decisions will be made in the next day about whether to shut down construction operations along the CFX toll roads. He said if such a decision is made, workers would spend the day Wednesday “buttoning up work areas and making sure anything that could go airborne is either tied down or removed from the site.”
Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, declared a state of emergency late Monday, after the track for Hurricane Matthew shifted considerably to the west. Scott observed that Hurricane Matthew is the most powerful storm to threaten the Sunshine State in nearly a quarter of a century. While a host of hurricanes and tropical storms have hit the state in that time, none has had the potential for such extreme damage as Hurricane Matthew. “If Hurricane Matthew directly impacts Florida, there could be massive destruction which we haven’t seen since Hurricane Andrew devastated Miami-Dade County in 1992,” Governor Scott told reporters Monday.
Editor's note: This story has been modified to include the comments of Brian Hutchings from the Central Florida Expressway Authority.
New SunPass Service Center Will Also Serve Interstate Partners
The Florida Department of Transportation, Florida’s Turnpike and a host of other Florida-based regional tolling agencies celebrated the grand opening today of a new, 70-thousand square feet operations facility, call center and interoperable processing center for interstate partners. The SunPass Centralized Customer Service Center, CCSC, occupies a large swatch of unused retail space at Ocoee’s West Oaks Mall, which is near the Holland East-West Expressway in Orange County, Florida. The center can be accessed from Exit 1 or Exit 2.
Dianne Gutierrez-Scaccetti, Executive Director and CEO of Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, said the opening of the center, and the consolidation of tolling operations, “demonstrates our commitment to providing great service to our SunPass customers, tolling partners and the community.”
State dignitaries were joined by Ocoee’s mayor, Rusty Johnson, to cut the ribbon of the new processing and call center. Mayor Johnson hailed the grand opening as a major step in Ocoee’s economic rebound. “It will encourage more businesses to come back and help revitalize the city,” he said.
Xerox will run the call center operations at the facility, where 480 people are expected to be employed, in addition to transferring staff from other facilities.
Construction has completed on three new ramps connecting Florida’s Turnpike with State Road 417, also called the Central Florida GreeneWay, and those ramps are set to open to rush-hour traffic Monday, May 16, 2016, according to Florida’s Department of Transportation. F.D.O.T. made the announcement Thursday afternoon.
The new interchange has been under construction, in stages, since late 2013. The first ramps opened in the fall of 2015. Monday’s ramp openings will mark completion of the second stage of the new interchange construction. A final stage, which will complete the last three ramps in the interchange, is set to begin construction later this year, according to the F.D.O.T.’s news release.
The new interchange also marks continued expansion of Florida’s Toll-by-Plate program, which is eliminating cash-toll facilities at many interchanges. The entirety of Florida’s toll road system is slated to be completely cashless within a few years, following a national trend toward cashless and electronic toll collection, even at bridges and tunnels.
F.D.O.T. will open the new ramps to traffic at 6 a.m. on May 16.