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Scramble is on for bay area road funds before stimulus is inked

Don't expect the federal economic stimulus bill to produce a dazzling network of new roads and bridges around Tampa Bay.

Projects will compete for what money the region does get, state transportation officials say, and there will be winners and losers.

Already, the emergence of an elevated link between Interstate 4 and the Crosstown Expressway in Tampa as a priority for state officials has prompted Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel to speak out.

Seel is worried the connector, which would allow trucks from the Port of Tampa to reach I-4 without having to navigate the streets of Ybor City, will siphon away money that could pay for improvements to U.S. 19 in Pinellas.

For too long, she said, the needs of U.S. 19 have been ignored, and now it looks as though Hillsborough County could capture the regional prize when it comes to stimulus dollars for transportation.

"It's not equitable," Seel said Tuesday.

Congress is working on a stimulus bill and it's expected that federal money for road and bridge projects will be funneled to state officials, who will decide what gets built where at the local level.

Under a version of the bill the U.S. House passed last week, state transportation officials estimate Florida will get $1.4 billion for road and bridge projects. Changes to the House bill are all but certain.

But considering that in December state officials released a stimulus project wish list with a $7 billion price tag, it's unlikely any changes will allow every city and county to fulfill all their dreams.

The I-4-Crosstown connector alone will cost $521 million, said Don Skelton, secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation's District 7, which includes Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Skelton said he doubts the region could get enough cash even to pay the entire bill for the connector.

"I do not believe that it's realistic to say that a third of what's going to come to Florida is going to come to District 7," he said.

When money does arrive, the connector will be the top priority, Skelton said. Following that, in no particular order, will be Seel's U.S. 19 improvements and upgrades to Interstate 275 in downtown Tampa.

The U.S. 19 upgrades are projected to cost $158 million; the I-275 work $326 million.

The Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority has been a key backer of the connector.

Authority officials say the project will help the port capitalize on a potential surge in container ship traffic in 2014, when the Panama Canal increases its capacity to handle larger vessels.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White is a member of the authority, and the connector would be in his district. Not only will the project be a huge shot in the region's economy, White said, but it also will improve safety and welfare in Ybor City by taking trucks off the road.

"I'm sorry that we all can't get our projects," White said. "But I'm glad our project is at the forefront and in due time, I guess Pinellas' ship will come in."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727)-445-4166.

Scramble is on for bay area road funds before stimulus is inked 02/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 4, 2009 12:12am]

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