Drivers and residents in mid Pinellas County have been dodging road construction for so long there seems to be no end in sight. Now, with two massive projects proposed for the area, relief might not come until about 2024.
But when those are complete, drivers will be able to get from the Bayside Bridge and U.S. 19 N to Hillsborough County on an elevated road with no traffic lights. They'll also cross the bay on a brand new Howard Frankland Bridge.
The total cost of both projects? Almost $700 million.
The first, known as the Gateway Express project, will have three phases. One will build an elevated toll expressway from U.S. 19 N just north of 118th Avenue. That portion will then go east along 118th.
Another piece, also an elevated tollway, will begin at the Bayside Bridge just north of Roosevelt Boulevard, travel south through what is now an automobile speedway and merge with the first piece at 118th Avenue.
The merged roads will then go east toward Interstate 275. They will not merge with the interstate, but traffic will be able to get onto the interstate to go north or south.
The amount of the toll has not been set, said Eyra Cash, the Florida Department of Transportation's manager for the Gateway Express project. Nor, she said, will everyone be expected to pay. Drivers will still be able to use 118th Avenue for free.
The goal is to bring more business to the Gateway area of Pinellas and to relieve the area of growing traffic congestion.
Work is expected to start in early 2017 and be complete by 2021, Cash said. About $300 million in county, state and federal money has been set aside for the Gateway Express project.
The other huge project is the construction of a new northbound Howard Frankland Bridge. The state has rated the current bridge, which reopened in January 1993 after rehabilitation, as "structurally deficient," said Ming Gao, state DOT planning manager. By giving the bridge that rating, the DOT is saying that it needs to be continually repaired or replaced by 2025. Gao estimated that the DOT is already paying about $2 million a year to maintain it.
"It's a pretty aggressive environment out there," Gao said, referring to saltwater and other elements the bridge is exposed to.
Though it's time to replace the northbound lanes, he said motorists should continue to feel safe crossing it.
"We are spending money every year to keep it up," he said.
The recommended replacement project calls for building a new span between the existing bridges because that will have less environmental impact on the area and would not require changes to the seawall on both the Hillsborough and Pinellas sides.
When complete, it would have four lanes. It would also have a substructure strong enough to be widened and to support light rail or other such fixed guideway transit, should that ever be built.
One of the four lanes would be a toll express lane. The other three would be traditional lanes.
The project is expected to start in the 2018-19 fiscal year and be complete some time in the 2022-24 time period. The cost is expected to be about $390 million, which includes demolishing the existing northbound Howard Frankland.
St. Petersburg sees the plans "as a huge economic development project. The Carillon area is our largest employment center and it is important to give employees as hassle-free a commute to work as possible; this project will help satisfy that expectation," said Evan Mory, St. Petersburg's transportation and parking director.
Mory added, "This is an area where there is moderate congestion at certain times of the day and this project will go a long way in alleviating the congestion currently experienced in the Gateway area.
"Not only will users of the new facility experience faster travel times, the users of the local roads will have a faster and better travel experience because volume will have been removed from the local roads."
The project, he said, will tie in with the Greenlight Pinellas transit proposal.
"The fact that the Greenlight Pinellas plan calls for a light rail/multimodal transportation hub in the area is another reason why improving transportation throughout the corridor is important," Mory said.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who serves on both the Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, also praised the concept.
"It's a good thing for the county, the toll issue notwithstanding," Welch said. The toll idea "had never been anticipated" in earlier discussions about the Gateway Express project.
Welch agreed the Gateway Express proposal and the new bridge will dovetail with that project. But, he said, some are wrong in thinking it will solve the area's traffic issues and make Greenlight unnecessary.
"It's not a substitute for Greenlight and will not solve all the problems," Welch said. "It is a start."
As things move forward, he said, thought must also be given to the problem of emergency response to the elevated section of the road.
The state DOT currently sees relatively few access and egress points, which could delay response from police, fire and emergency medical services when needed. And the increased traffic that could come into the area because of the expressway could also add a burden to EMS first responders in that area.
Contact Anne Lindberg at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450. Follow @alindbergtimes.