Seizing on a project that sat idle for years, Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that he will make $131 million available to build an elevated expressway linking Interstate 275 and U.S. 19, the second major transportation project he has pledged to fast-track in an election year.
At a news conference, Scott said that because of Florida's improving economy, the state now has enough money to build the expressway, a project that local planners have been discussing for more than a decade. Expected to cost nearly $338 million, the elevated toll expressway would allow motorists to travel quickly between the county's two major arteries, I-275 and U.S. 19. It would also take them from I-275 to St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and the Bayside Bridge.
Florida Department of Transportation officials said they expect construction to begin in early 2017 and to last for five years, a timeline that accelerates the project by roughly two decades. The elevated roadway linking I-275 and U.S. 19 will run over 118th Avenue and then north to the airport. Once completed, the expressway could potentially shave 9 to 13 minutes off commuters' rush-hour drives.
"We're going to be able to cross the Skyway Bridge and not have to stop at a stop light until you are in Palm Harbor," said former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, one of a group of Republican officials who attended the announcement.
Elected officials in Pinellas offered high praise for the project, calling it a necessary fix.
"That's the worst bottle neck in Pinellas," said Republican Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala. "Any transportation improvements that we can get in Pinellas County, we will be incredibly grateful for."
But some Democrats questioned the timing of Scott's announcement and the governor's motivation.
A Republican, Scott is running for re-election in November and the most recent polls put him behind his opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as a Democrat. A poll commissioned by the Tampa Bay Times and other local news outlets in December found Tampa Bay area voters were ambivalent about the governor's job performance. Some cited his decision to reject billions of dollars in federal money for a bullet train connecting Tampa and Orlando as a source of disappointment.
"That's almost funny," said Democratic Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long, on hearing that the state will expedite the expressway's construction after years of leaving it unfunded. "What was the change of heart due to you suppose?"
Long and other Democrats said Scott's announcement may have been intended to compete with the Greenlight Pinellas proposal, which will ask voters to approve raising the county's sales tax from 7 to 8 percent to pay for an expanded bus system and 24 miles of light rail connecting Clearwater, the Gateway area and St. Petersburg. The referendum, which will be on the November ballot, is opposed by several of the elected officials who stood by Scott's side on Monday, including state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and state Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater.
Scott's budget for 2015 calls for $8.8 billion in spending on "strategic transportation improvements," across the state, an increase of $200 million over what Florida is spending this year.
Last month, the governor announced that the DOT would speed up construction on U.S. 19, which had fallen behind schedule, by paying the contractor an extra $3.2 million to have its crews work around the clock. If the contractor meets the project's 2015 deadline, the state will reward it with a $1.6 million bonus.
The elevated expressway's financing will involve a combination of federal, state and county funding and is expected to cost $338 million in total. Pinellas County's share will come to just over $53 million, the state will pay $131 million, and $153 million will come from the Federal Highway Administration.
To pay for the project's accelerated timeline, DOT officials said the expressway will have tolls, but drivers will still be able to use the current road system for free. Asked how much the state plans to charge drivers, DOT spokeswoman Kristen Carson said the exact figures are still being determined, but they could fluctuate depending on the time of day. For example, drivers using the expressway at peak travel hours could be charged more than those taking it on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
In Pasco County, the idea for an elevated toll road had a very different genesis. Last summer, a consortium of engineers called International Infrastructure Partners LLC submitted an unsolicited bid to the state to build a privately built and operated highway along State Road 54, where homes and businesses are sprouting and traffic is a chronic problem.
Already, though, the project is running into political problems. The County Commission agreed to continue studying it, but a group of residents called Pasco Fiasco has organized in opposition to the road being built, and three county commissioners have subsequently expressed doubts about giving it their support.
The governor's announcement caught Pinellas County officials who had been working on the project with the DOT by surprise. The county's liaison to the project, Ivan Fernandez, said when he last discussed it with state officials a month ago, there was no indication they planned to fund it or add tolls. Some county commissioners also were surprised.
"It's nice to see the state prioritizing transportation," said Commissioner Ken Welch, a Democrat. "But it's only part of the solution. It's not a silver bullet."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.