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Accelerated plans for Pinellas connector bumps into light rail designs

A map shows the proposed route of the Gateway Express project that was unveiled in February.

A map shows the proposed route of the Gateway Express project that was unveiled in February.

ST. PETERSBURG — A month ago, when Gov. Rick Scott announced he would fast-track an expressway linking Pinellas' two major corridors, U.S. 19 and Interstate 275, he seemed to offer a well-timed gift to a region he's aiming to win over as he seeks re-election.

But he also dropped a ton of concrete on top of Pinellas' plans for a light rail route, which will also be on the November ballot, when residents will be asked to decide whether to support a sales tax increase to pay for rail and an expansion of the bus system.

Maps of the expressway and the rail line show that the two proposals — both years away from construction — come into conflict at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, where the Florida Department of Transportation's plans for a new road could choke off rail passengers' access to the airport.

Scott's sudden decision to accelerate the expressway's construction appears to have caught both FDOT and Pinellas transit officials off guard. At a meeting on Thursday, members of the two agencies said they had only recently realized that the two projects overlap near the airport, a problem they hadn't anticipated because the expressway seemed like a far-off idea that might materialize decades from now, if at all.

"This was not on the radar screen of the county. It was a very long-term plan," said Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller. "But the whole world changed about a month ago because now it's a real project."

Drawn up in 2012, plans for a light rail route from St. Petersburg to Clearwater show it making its way to the Gateway area, then traveling along the west side of Roosevelt Boulevard. Once there, it would stop at a station near the airport, around which planners envisioned hotels and shops would open to serve business travelers and tourists.

But FDOT plans for the expressway add a serious wrinkle.

It addition to building an elevated expressway connecting U.S. 19 and I-275, which would be constructed on top of 118th Avenue N, the FDOT is also planning to build an expressway from 118th Avenue to the Bayside Bridge. The road would run along Roosevelt adjacent to the light rail route. As designed, it would stand between the proposed train station and the airport.

"Obviously, an elevated structured roadway will make it more difficult to reach the airport," Miller said. "It's something we need to be concerned about."

PSTA officials have devised several possible alternatives, one of which includes building an underpass that would run beneath Roosevelt, allowing visitors to take a shuttle from their hotels to the airport.

Another idea is to move the rail route to the east side of Roosevelt so that it could still ferry passengers directly to the airport. But this proposal comes with a major downside for economic redevelopment — there's little room on the east side for hotels and shops.

Asked on Thursday how they would accommodate the possibility of a future light rail route, FDOT officials said they needed more time.

"We just got the project funded a month and a half ago," said Eyra Cash, the project manager.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Accelerated plans for Pinellas connector bumps into light rail designs 03/13/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2014 12:08am]

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