Crosstown Parkway allows easier access over the river to connect city’s east and west
BY SUSAN BURGESS
Almost 40 years ago, the Port St. Lucie City Council had a dream of a wide, smooth highway crossing the North Fork of the St. Lucie River, letting residents travel in comfort from the east to the west side of the city.
Thirty-nine years later, the aptly named Crosstown Parkway is embarking on its grand opening and is as beautiful and sweeping as the original dreamers hoped.
The project spanned six mayors, starting with William B. McChesney in 1980 and ending with Gregory Oravec.
The Crosstown Parkway, with its new 4,000-foot bridge over the North Fork, connects the two sides of the city. The just completed two-mile section of road, which includes the bridge, was the missing link between east and west.
“It’s going to make our lives in Port St. Lucie even better,” Mayor Oravec said of the essential bridge. “Getting around town will be easier, emergency response times will be faster and our economy will be even bigger.”
The Crosstown bridge, named the Walter B. England III Memorial Bridge to honor the long-time city engineer, joins the two earlier bridges over the North Fork at Port St. Lucie and Prima Vista boulevards, both built decades ago to accommodate the needs of a much smaller city.
The six-lane divided highway will not only speed motorists on their way but also serve as a new evacuation route. It provides space for bicyclists and pedestrians on the side. Overlooks allow people to stop and enjoy the scenery as they cross wetlands and the winding, picturesque North Fork.
At both ends of the bridge, towers on each side are tiled with river-related art by famed marine biologist and wildlife painter Guy Harvey. On top of each tower are graceful metal sculptures of seagrass and fish.
A community block party, months in the planning, will celebrate the milestone at the corner of Floresta Drive and Crosstown Parkway on Sept. 28. The opening ceremony starts at 9 a.m. with ribbon-cutting at 10:30, followed by the block party until 2 p.m. Parking will be available just west of Floresta.
Activities include live music, a kids’ zone, customized and classic cars, and food trucks. There will be a unique opportunity to take a trolley tour over the bridge and learn from a guide about some of its history and special elements, including the towers that feature the tile mosaic by artist Harvey.
Commemorative merchandise includes Guy Harvey T-shirts, posters, and Tervis tumblers featuring the artwork on the bridge towers. Bridge ornaments are likely to be popular.
“The celebration (of the opening) will give residents a chance to see the bridge first-hand while having fun with activities and entertainment,” says Vice Mayor Shannon Martin.
Expect to see cars lined up on Crosstown between Airoso Boulevard and Sandia Drive waiting for a chance to be one of the first to cross the river when the bridge officially opens for traffic at 4 p.m. that day. City officials say there is still some work to do beneath the bridge, but it won’t affect drivers. It should be finished within three months of the opening.
The bridge is opening to drivers two months early because residents and city officials said they want the bridge open as soon as possible, City Manager Russ Blackburn says.
Drivers will be able to reach the eastern part of the city in about 15 minutes from I-95, instead of about 45 minutes. It will be an easy trip from U.S. 1 through the southern end of St. Lucie West to Tradition, relieving the old bridges on Prima Vista and Port St. Lucie boulevards from congestion. When the old bridges were built, the city’s population was less than 14,000. Today, it is more than 13 times that, at 189,000.
The Crosstown bridge faced obstacle after obstacle for years before the groundbreaking because it crosses environmentally sensitive lands, making it difficult to get permits. Legal challenges by environmental groups cost the city a year’s delay.
However, city officials went all out to mitigate the effects, resulting in a number of benefits to residents and visitors alike, Blackburn pointed out in one of his annual reports.
The city gave 110 acres of land to the state to expand the Savannas Preserve State Park. It helped St. Lucie County complete a restoration project at Platts Creek. A multi-use trail at the Savannas Recreation Area off East Midway Road was built. The Evans Creek canoe launch was improved and now supports use by the disabled, and the city paid to expand the popular and frequently used education center at the Savannas Preserve State Park.
Groundbreaking was May 9, 2017. It took two years and four months to build from West Virginia Drive, where the existing parkway ended, to U.S. 1 at Village Green Drive.
The cost, originally predicted to be $101 million, ended up being $91 million because the city took over the lead on the project from the Florida Department of Transportation and used the single team of RS&H and Archer Western for design and construction. City officials say combining the design and the build phases reduces risk and saves time and money.
The two companies working together built the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Palm City, which faced similar issues, although the Palm City Bridge crosses more water than the Port St. Lucie bridge.
Like many large road-and-bridge projects, Crosstown was built in segments. The first one, on the western side of the North Fork from Floresta Drive to Cashmere Boulevard in St. Lucie West, opened in 2008. That was the same year the infamous Tropical Storm Fay hit, causing massive flooding and unexpected canoeing opportunities on city streets.
That segment was followed by a new interchange with I-95, north of Tradition Parkway, in 2009.
In 2011, the next segment, six lanes with linear parks, from the interstate to Manth Lane on the west side of the North Fork, was completed.
Next came long years and frustrating efforts to get the permits to start the bridge.
In 2014, the city got to work on connecting Crosstown to U.S. 1. The years-long process was complicated and at times, it may have looked to those on the front lines like it might never happen.
“It was one step forward and two back,” says Patricia Roebling, now the assistant city manager. In 1995, she started working for the city as the assistant city engineer and became involved with Crosstown right away. “We’d hit a wall and then try to find our way around it. And then we’d hit another one. Sometimes it seemed we were powerless over the process.”
The city proposed a multitude of locations for the bridge crossing. Ultimately, after years of studies required by federal and state agencies, it chose the path that connects the bridge to West Virginia Drive, crossing the river, and finally ending up at U.S. 1.
There is still some controversy though. An unusual intersection where heavily traveled Floresta Drive meets Crosstown is currently under construction. It forces drivers headed for Crosstown to get there by turning right onto Floresta and then making a U-turn back to Crosstown to get on the parkway. From the moment the plan was revealed to the public, critics have been asking for it to be dropped in favor of a more conventional intersection.
City officials contend that the plan is actually safer than a conventional four-way intersection. “The reduced conflict intersection with signalized U-turn at Floresta Drive and Crosstown will improve travel time and reduce delays as well as increase safety by reducing conflict points, meaning fewer and less severe crashes,” says Beth Zsoka, spokeswoman for the parkway project.
“The design also supports pedestrian safety by providing a large median refuge and eliminating the conflict between pedestrians and left-turning vehicles,” she says. “The design provides a benefit to residents along the local street, Floresta Drive, by allowing the roadway to remain a neighborhood street.”
Residents will have to try it out before they come to their own conclusions.
Roebling, along with others, is relieved to be at the Crosstown finish line.
“It’s amazing to me to be standing on this bridge that we’ve been able to accomplish,” she says. “It was an amazing journey. There were so many obstacles to overcome, and we did it.”
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