Several years ago FDOT finally decided to go forward with two projects that have made sense for at least thirty years. Truck bypasses of US 301 around both Starke and Baldwin which are on the busy route between Ocala and the Georgia border.
In particular, Starke has long needed a bypass. Anybody who has shot up the center of the state toward Jacksonville has experienced the gridlock in and around Starke. In the 1980’s, a Turnpike between Tampa and Jacksonville was considered by the state as was an expressway between Gainesville and Jacksonville. Neither happened, and eventually US 301 would carry more traffic through Starke on average everyday than travel I-10 in the Lake City area.
As the traffic built up, the towns that US 301 ran through became problematic for motorists looking to make time between major cities. Trucks would be slowed and speeding tickets for ordinary car motorists increased. AAA designated Starke along with Lawtey and Waldo as speed traps and encouraged motorists to avoid the area – at one point they were considered the biggest speed traps in the nation. That was virtually impossible given other options to drive from the west central part of the state to Jacksonville were less direct or required traveling through Orlando and either infamous I-4 traffic or the most expensive toll roads in the state.
In the 2000’s the traffic on US 301 through the Starke area got so bad that calls for an expressway between the Ocala area and Jacksonville were renewed. With interchanges already existing at SR 20 in Hawthorne and SR 24 in Waldo, it in theory at least would have been possible to upgrade the least part of 301 to a limited access road in parts. But by 2010, the state had settled on the idea of a bypass around Starke.
The bypass around Starke will run to the west of the town and be almost seven and a half miles in length. The new road has been under construction since 2016 and should be open soon, bringing relief to those currently driving through Starke to destinations north or south.
According to FDOT:
“The new roadway will consist of two travel lanes in each direction, and overpasses will be constructed over County Road 100A, the CSX Railroad, and County Road 229. Interchanges will be constructed along the new roadway to provide access to State Road 100 and State Road 16”
The bypass will be a limited access highway though the decision to have traffic-light controlled intersections at each end of the road where it intersects US 301 is odd, preventing traffic from flowing as naturally. It would have seemingly made sense to build interchanges at both junctions given the rest of the bypass will act as an expressway of sorts around Starke.
Meanwhile, FDOT is also building a bypass along US 301 around the town of Baldwin in Duval County. Baldwin just north of I-10 has a concurrency between US 301 and US 90 through the center of the town, creating incredible traffic snarls.
According to FDOT:
The Baldwin Bypass project includes constructing a new four-mile, four-lane divided highway beginning north of the I-10 westbound on-ramp and two new signalized intersections at Beaver Street (U.S. 90) and Brandy Branch Road. Plans also include building an overpass across two CSX railroad crossings and an additional overpass over the Jacksonville-Baldwin Rail Trail to alleviate traffic congestion and improve operational efficiency of U.S. 301, which is part of the National Highway System and Florida’s Strategic Intermodal System (SIS).
The Baldwin bypass will complete by the middle of 2020. In the meantime the road construction is causing even worse traffic near the junction with I-10 than usual. However, in time this bypass, long needed will provide relief to motorists and reduce traffic within Baldwin.
One potential loser with both bypass roads are local merchants in Starke and Baldwin. Also questions as to the potential for eventual development that seemingly accompanies any new road building in Florida have been raised.
Irrespective of possible drawbacks, these two roads are long overdue and FDOT as well as the legislature must be given credit for ensuring they were finally commissioned, authorized and built.