Life in the Express Lane: How the New First Coast Expressway Is Paving the Way for New Business

Cars drive along the new St. Johns River Bridge in a photo rendering. Construction is expected to be completed in 2029 and cost approximately $334 million. The four-lane bridge will smooth traffic and create a higher clearance for marine vessels. Photo rendering courtesy of Florida Department of Transportation

Commuting is about to get simpler for those in Clay County and its surrounding areas.
Thanks to a visionary project known as the First Coast Expressway — or FCX for short — nearly 80% of commuters in Clay will now have easier access to Duval County, a business hub. With slightly more than 220,000 residents, it means fewer clogged backroads and fewer lengthy commutes around Clay County.

The roadway will connect I-10 to I-95.

Crawford Powell

“I’m most excited about the additional access to resources and an economic engine coming through the county,” says Crawford Powell, president of Clay County Economic Development Corporation. “Smart growth, proactive growth in a community, is always a cornerstone for a thriving community. This is one of those key infrastructure plans that will have a tremendous impact on Clay County.”

Overall, the 46-mile expressway is a multi-lane, limited-access toll road that will cross over Duval, Clay and St. Johns counties once completed. As with many construction projects, the completion of a massive project like this doesn’t happen overnight. Construction began in 2013 on the expressway’s first segment, which included a toll collection.

Photo rendering courtesy of Florida Department of Transportation

Skipping tolls is possible on the trip from I-10 to New World Avenue and reverse, which allows access to the Cecil Commerce Center toll-free. Frontage roads between Oakleaf Plantation Parkway and Old Jennings Road are also toll-free.

Despite the massiveness of the three-segment project, all is running smoothly, Powell says. He’s optimistic it may even finish a year or two ahead of schedule.

Because of the area’s explosive growth, the expressway is expected to relieve congestion on other major roadways in the region. This will not only save daily commuters time on the road but will also be essential for storm-related evacuations in an area that sees hurricanes often.

“A lot of the residential expansion is happening along that corridor,” says Powell. “It [the FCX] will allow people to live in Clay and have quick access out to Jacksonville and St Johns. It’s going to exponentially change the traffic patterns.”

It will also bring new business in and allow for current ones to expand, Powell says.

One of those new businesses will be Merritt Properties, a full-service commercial real estate firm that acquired 16 acres for development in Clay County.

A worker watches as cranes put a piece of the First Coast Expressway in along I-10 N. of Argyle Forest Blvd. The project started in September 2013 and cost $76.9 million to improve road infrastructure. Photo courtesy of Florida Department of Transportation

“We are incredibly excited to expand Merritt’s presence in Jacksonville,” stated Pat Franklin of Merritt Properties’ Florida leasing team in an October 2022 press release.

“There is increased demand for small-bay, dock-loaded products throughout Jacksonville, so we are confident that this park will be well-received by a wide range of companies [that] are seeking office and warehouse space,” stated Franklin. “Buildings will primarily cater to small businesses needing 2,700 to 10,000 square feet.”

Additionally, Ascension, a healthcare company, is looking at property for expansion. Niagara Bottling has already relocated to the area, too, where it dropped $70 million for its manufacturing facility in Middleburg.

The expressway and its related growth have been a long time coming, says fifth-generation Clay County resident Rob Bradley, who also served as District 5 Florida Senator from 2012-2020.

As a resident and businessman, he’s glad to see the expressway well underway. Not only does he see it as a smart move for residents but also for expanding area businesses.

Rob Bradley

“Our community is experiencing explosive growth,” says Bradley, who is also a managing partner at Bradley, Garrison & Komando, PA, a Clay County law firm. “The FCE will provide the capacity to handle our growing population for the next several decades. The FCE will also open our county to excellent economic development opportunities, allowing our population to work where they live.”

The boom in Florida’s population means more people continue to settle down in areas such as Clay, Duval and St. Johns. With that boom comes a higher demand for entertainment, healthcare and other community resources. The James Madison Institute reports that more than 900 people moved to Florida daily between April 2020 to April 2021.

St. Johns, in particular, has proven to be extremely popular, especially for families. It’s been declared “the fastest-growing county in Florida and the United States,” according to the St. Johns County profile website, due to a population increase of 44% between 2010-2020.

Powell anticipates that the expressway will continue to bring both business and residential structures into Clay County as a result due to retail expansion based on the demographics of the area.

“In five to seven years, as these residential communities grow, you’ll see tremendous growth in the retail sector also,” he says.

The road isn’t the only area where congestion will improve for area businesses, either. For those who distribute goods via waterways, the third segment of the project will improve water transportation. A new four-lane bridge over the St. Johns River — south of where the current Shands Bridge is — will add a clearance of 65 feet, allowing marine vessels to navigate the area more easily.

A shot of the new St. Johns River Bridge in a photo rendering showcases what the four-lane bridge will look like once completed in 2029. Photo rendering courtesy of Florida Department of Transportation

The bridge will cost $334 million and is expected to be finished in 2029, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

As for the success of the overall project, Powell says it couldn’t have been done without the forward thinking and teamwork of elected officials and the Florida government. He credits them positively “working together and making sure everything stays on track” as the reason the expressway has moved forward as it has.

“It’s an extremely large project and took an extreme amount of vision and insight and due diligence to get it on this path,” he says. “This has been on people’s minds for 20 to 25 years. That’s just visionary leadership investing in the community.”