Thursday, June 21, 2018
Transportation

No tolls for I-275, FDOT decides, but now its focus switches to I-75

TAMPA — A plan for express toll lanes on Interstate 275 north through Bearss Avenue is officially dead.

But the Florida Department of Transportation is now giving more weight to the prospect of toll lanes along stretches of Interstate 75.

Local DOT secretary David Gwynn confirmed to Hillsborough elected leaders Wednesday that the agency will not pursue toll lanes on I-275 between I-4 and Bearss. The move had been opposed for years by activists in Tampa Heights, V.M Ybor and other neighborhoods along the stretch.

In its place, I-75 would become the main north-south option for moving commuters from suburbs north of Tampa as part of the department’s rebranded Tampa Bay Next initiative. The department has begun a year-long state study to determine where along I-75 to charge the tolls.

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This could include stretches around Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, Wesley Chapel and other points north in Pasco County, Gwynn said. Areas as far as Sun City Center and South Hillsborough also are being considered.

The express lanes are needed, he said, to reduce journey times. He is not expecting the same level of opposition as the transportation department encountered when it proposed the I-275 tolls.

"We’re re-looking at the whole situation to see if there is another way to get the most of what we want for mobility with less impact to the community," he said. "On I-75, there is lot more vacant land. It’s not as developed along the corridor."

Tampa Heights Civic Association President Rick Fernandez was among the activists who fought against expanding I-275 in downtown Tampa. He had heard the plan had been shelved but said Tuesday it was nice to have it confirmed.

"It’s certainly a big victory for the people in the urban core neighborhoods," he said. "The express toll lane would have been the reason for expanding the footprint of the interstate."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp, whose campaign for office included a pledge to fight the state’s plan for I-275, said she was thrilled. The expansion would have repeated the demolition of inner-city neighborhoods in the 1960s for construction of interstates through the city.

"We don’t need to double down on the bad decisions made in the 1960s to put more asphalt through urban cores and destroy the fabric of those communities," Kemp said.

Gwynn also announced Wednesday that the transportation department has come up with new options to reduce the impact of a proposed redesign for the downtown interchange, often called "Malfunction Junction" by motorists.

The state’s original plan included an option to completely rebuild the intersection, requiring the purchase of almost 200 neighboring plots of land. Two new options would use existing roads and add an elevated express lane either to the south or north. That would reduce the number of parcels the state would need to buy to between and 30 and 80, FDOT documents show.

"We could be down to as few as 30 parcels," he said "All of that came out of the input we received from the community."

The state has yet to make a decision on what option it will pursue. The costs range from $775 million to $1.6 billion.

Gwynn provided his update at a Tampa meeting of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, a 16-member board that approves transportation projects.

He also took the opportunity to dismiss claims it is pushing a plan for a tri-county bus rapid transit or BRT line. He said the agency only gets involved when local governments have finalized a plan and are seeking funding.

"If we had a project and a funding plan, then we’d be ready," he said.

The proposed 41-mile BRT service, which would run from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg through downtown Tampa, has the support of elected leaders in Pasco and Pinellas counties and the region’s business community.

But it’s unclear if it has support of most Hillsborough County commissioners, who would likely be asked to find funds for much of the $455 million cost.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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