SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – The day Central Florida drivers have waited years for is here. I-4 Express officially opened Saturday morning.
The Florida Department of Transportation initially said the express lanes were set to open at 10 a.m., but officials opened the toll lanes about two hours early around 8 a.m.
I took a ride in the passenger seat to give you a firsthand look at what drivers can expect.
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Our News 6 photographer and I started our ride in Seminole County, entering the new toll lanes heading westbound near State Road 434. Before getting on the toll road, we made our way to the leftmost lane on I-4 to prepare to enter the express lanes.
Getting onto I-4 Express was a simple process of merging on the left side of interstate into the toll lanes. We were then driving on the toll road, with a concrete barrier separating the managed toll lanes from the general use lanes.
Our News 6 vehicle was only one of a comparatively few cars testing out the new toll lanes just hours after they opened.
Jessica Ottaviano with FDOT told me they intentionally opened I-4 Express over the weekend because there isn’t as much congestion.
“There’s a little bit lower of volume of traffic, but it also gives the opportunity to try it out before the commute day,” Ottaviano said.
We saw signs posted overhead along the toll lanes that showed how much I-4 Express cost at the time. The signs currently reads $0.00, for now. Ottaviano said FDOT is offering I-4 drivers the chance to try out the new toll lanes for free for the first five days.
“(It’s) so drivers can experience this without worrying about making mistakes and having to pay for that and just learning this new choice that’s available to them,” she said.
Following the free days, on Thursday March 3, FDOT will start charging drivers an introductory toll rate of $0.50 per section. To drive the full 21-mile stretch of the I-4 Express corridor from Kirkman Road to S.R. 434, it will cost you $3.50 heading eastbound and $3.00 heading westbound.
FDOT said it will collect real-time traffic data during this introductory toll rate, which officials will use to eventually transition to variable tolling. Ottaviano said that means prices will change depending on traffic.
“If more people are using them, we’re going to raise the price to try to give that still-reliable trip,” she said.
After we completed our first trip westbound on I-4 Express, we turned around and started heading east. This time we merged onto the toll lanes near Kirkman Road.
The drive heading eastbound took us about 20 minutes and we saw minimal traffic. We did drive past several toll collection points which were activated, even though the lanes are free for now.
The footage below, which has been sped up, shows the drive eastbound on I-4 Express:
A big tip for drivers using I-4 Express: you must have a transponder to use the toll lanes. FDOT said cash or toll-by-plate options are not available on the express lanes.
If you don’t have a transponder, then you could be subject to a $25 fee and the cost of tolls.
While on our ride, we did see law enforcement staged throughout the corridor. We’re also told Florida Highway Patrol troopers will be out monitoring drivers’ speed.
And remember, only two-axle vehicles and pre-registered buses are allowed to use the express lanes. Vehicles with three or more axles can’t use the lanes unless they’re designated emergency vehicles, including trucks, RVs and vehicles pulling trailers.
Ottaviano said FDOT is excited to offer this new travel option, but cautions I-4 Express will take some getting used to. FDOT encourages drivers to map out their drive using I4Express.com before hitting the road.
“We know that congestion is anticipated, and we just really need people to be patient so that everyone can drive alert, drive safely and get everyone where they need to go and still enjoy this opportunity to try it out,” she said.
My takeaway: I-4 Express is nice, if you’re willing to pay. I personally try to avoid driving on I-4, but I’m happy to know if I ever need to take the interstate that this option is available. It was a great and smooth ride, but it was a weekend morning. I imagine things will look different during rush hour or during a weekday morning commute. FDOT is anticipating congestion as drivers learn how to navigate the new lanes. But I’m hopeful that as drivers get used to I-4 Express and traffic normalizes, it will be a great travel option.