TALLAHASSEE – Nearly 45 million visitors entered the Sunshine State by car last year.
And at least one state lawmaker doesn’t like what they saw.
“We’ve got a little piddly sign and we junk it all up. … It doesn’t give a welcoming entrance,” said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach.
Bean’s on a crusade to make the gateway into Florida a more memorable experience, and the Florida Department of Transportation is on board.
By the fall of 2015, drivers crossing the Florida state line will be greeted by majestic archways towering over palm trees and tropical-looking foliage at locations on Interstate 95 and Interstate 75. Similar signage is also planned for the Interstate 10 Florida-Alabama state line, according to DOT officials.
The 30-foot-high columns will be connected with a 40-foot-wide mock-cable suspension bridge featuring the words “Florida Welcomes You” and a rising orange sun on the southbound side and “Thank You for Visiting Florida” as drivers head north. Plans also include a separate bridge, prominently displaying “The Sunshine State,” spanning the entire highway further south on Interstate 75.
“It was a humongous idea,” said DOT District 2 Secretary Greg Evans, whose 18-county region includes the two state line crossings from Georgia where the new signage will be erected.
Evans said the department was exploring the idea of putting up more eye-popping signs along the state lines when Bean approached him. Bean said he promised to come up with the funds for the projects, but Evans said he found the $2.8 million in his budget, and work on the towers will begin this fall.
Bean said he got the idea after driving into South Carolina.
“It’s extremely stately. You know you’re in South Carolina. They’ve got the flag pole. They’ve got huge gates on the side. You come in, you go, ‘Wow, we’re in South Carolina.’ There’s no other sign. It’s just boom,” he said.
He wants visitors to Florida – the No. 1 destination by car for travelers in the U.S. – to feel the same way.
The new signs are all part of Florida’s push to outdo last year’s record-setting 90 million visitors and hit the 100 million mark. About half of the visitors to the state roll in by car, motorcycle or some other type of vehicle, Evans said.
“We want to go out and brand Florida. …We are a gateway for millions of visitors each year. We wanted to have the concept that when you arrived in Florida, you knew you were in Florida,” he said.
Bean is peeved by not only the paltry signs but also by other notices posted nearby that warn of a variety of driving-related no-nos. Those signs, he said, “junk up” the entry into the state even further.
The new plan includes a 100-foot buffer zone before drivers will be confronted by signs advising them that texting and driving is an offense, to wear their seat belts or that they may be under surveillance from air patrols. Most of those signs are required by federal or state law, Evans said.
“With the investment we’re making in this gateway, visibility is a very high priority with us,” he said. “Those signs will not impact the view of the gateway.”