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Cars, trucks and bears? The plan to keep wildlife off Interstate 4

The Tenoroc Public Use Area is a nature reserve just northeast of Lakeland in Polk County. The 201214-8 I-4 Wildlife Crossing would connect Tenoroc lands to the Green Swamp that is north of I-4.
Isabella Thalheimer
/
WMFE
The Tenoroc Public Use Area is a nature reserve just northeast of Lakeland in Polk County. The 201214-8 I-4 Wildlife Crossing would connect Tenoroc lands to the Green Swamp that is north of I-4.

Every day white-tailed deer and Florida black bears roam forests and swamps that are dangerously close to the whizzing traffic of Interstate 4 in Tenoroc Public Use Area just northeast of Lakeland. State officials are working to make sure fewer animals end up as roadkill.

The Florida Department of Transportation is developing an $11.9 million wildlife overpass across a section of I-4 that’s designed to protect wildlife from the threats posed by the highway. The overpass will connect their habitats on both sides of the interstate, which is important to their survival.

A need for safe passage

I-4’s constant expansion has caused it to become a barrier for animals and prevents them from living among humans in harmony, state officials say.

According to the FDOT, the rapid development along the I-4 corridor in Central Florida has resulted in an average increase of over 100,000 annual daily traffic volume.

The overpass, which could begin construction in the next four years, will go over the interstate about a mile east of the State Road 33/I-4 interchange. State officials chose this spot after data showed it to be an ideal location. This project will establish a connection between Peace River-Saddle Creek and the Green Swamp near Tenoroc. The I-4 Saddle Creek overpass will be the first dedicated for wildlife.

Over, not under

Brent Setchell, drainage design engineer in FDOT’s District 1 office, is among the many that determined there was an opportunity for three wildlife crossings along I-4 within Polk County. After FDOT committed to implementing 1998 legislation that called for more wildlife crossings in the state, many evaluations and design modifications have occurred. FDOT used GIS modeling to determine roadkill and collision data to find the ideal location for the wildlife overpass.

“This corridor connecting the Peace River to the Green Swamp will open the door for Florida panthers and black bears to also utilize this crossing,” Setchell said.

State officials determined that an overpass is more resourceful and effective than an underpass.

Brent Setchell, Florida Department of Transportation District 1 Design Drainage Engineer, is an advocate for wildlife crossings and shares the data and designs to create both wildlife overpasses and underpasses. In this photo, Setchell shows the future locations and designs for the designed overpass
Isabella Thalheimer
/
WMFE
Brent Setchell, Florida Department of Transportation District 1 Design Drainage Engineer, is an advocate for wildlife crossings and shares the data and designs to create both wildlife overpasses and underpasses. In this photo, Setchell shows the future locations and designs for the designed overpass

“There was no right of way acquisition that was needed for the specific touchdowns on either side,’’ Setchell explains. “The cost of doing the overpass versus the cost of doing an underpass was significantly cheaper and the studies have been done out West that certain species prefer the overpasses, specifically like deer and elk.”

The I-4 Saddle Creek overpass will be near Tenoroc Public Use Area, the home of many wildlife species. This public use area is famous for its fishing and wildlife viewing. Visitors explore Tenoroc while hiking, bicycling, or horseback riding. The crossing will give animals who are typically confined to one side of I-4 access to new habitat.

“I come here sometimes twice a week while I'm in Florida,” said William Powell, a winter visitor from New York. “I've walked around the place and on occasion I've seen gators, I've seen a variety of turtles and signs of other wildlife.”

Officials from the state Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission would not comment or answer questions about the project.

The path forward

In late January, Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed the Moving Florida Forward plan to expedite transportation projects throughout the next four years.

If the Legislature approves the budget, this overpass and other crossings will get funded. The design for the bridge will cost about $1.2 million and future funding will provide the construction cost of $8.2 million. The I-4 Saddle Creek wildlife crossing will be 44 feet wide and 35 feet high. There will be noise-canceling walls on both sides and vegetation to welcome all targeted wildlife. This design has been developed to adapt to future I-4 expansions.

This map, presented at the 201214-8 I-4 Wildlife Crossing Presentation, shows the design for the first wildlife overpass located approximately 1.6 miles east of the I-4/SR 33 interchange over I-4. The design for the bridge costs $1.2 million and future funding will provide the construction cost of $8.2 million.
Florida Department of Transportation
/
FDOT
This map, presented at the 201214-8 I-4 Wildlife Crossing Presentation, shows the design for the first wildlife overpass located approximately 1.6 miles east of the I-4/SR 33 interchange over I-4. The design for the bridge costs $1.2 million and future funding will provide the construction cost of $8.2 million.

Daniel Smith is a research scientist in the biology department at UCF. His main area of research is the field of landscape ecology. Smith studies the impacts of development, transit on wildlife populations, and habitats.

“The amount of development along I-4 and also the traffic levels, has created almost a permanent barrier for animals to move from the southern part of the peninsula up to northern Florida,” Smith said.

Smith helps identify where animals desire to cross. This evaluation determines the location of a wildlife crossing. Smith said a potential problem with this project could be that humans will try to use the overpass, too, disturbing wildlife. Many animals tend to stay away from areas strongly populated by humans. “To have a highly functional crossing that's in a contiguous forest or divided by a road, you have to try to keep the people out of there or at least keep it to a minimum,’’ Smith said.

Smith will be providing data so the crossing can be monitored efficiently to help Florida’s wildlife. Trail cameras and radio tracking will be used to observe animals and their behavior.

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