Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Transportation

High cost, obscure government rule dooms widening of crowded Fletcher Avenue

TAMPA — About 40,000 vehicles travel each day on Fletcher Avenue. It connects interstates 75 and 275 and takes thousands of commuters to the University of South Florida, Moffitt Cancer Center and Florida Hospital.

The Transportation Task Force, a group assembled five years ago to evaluate Hillsborough County's transportation needs, set aside $2 million to study the cost and impact of widening Fletcher from four lanes to six.

That study is wrapping up, but it's unlikely anything will come of it — at least anytime soon.

That's because the project isn't likely to get funded, even though engineers say the widening is sorely needed.

There are several reasons: The big price tag, estimated at $75 million to $110 million; the weak economy, which caused deep cuts in tax revenues to pay for roadwork; and a federal rule that prohibits federal spending for certain highway projects.

The dilemma surfaced last year as the county was deep into the $2 million study.

The county asked the Metropolitan Planning Organization — the group that determines which local projects meet federal criteria for funds — to take a second look at the Fletcher widening after it ranked low under a federal assessment for financing.

The group suggested the county could better its odds by tweaking the design and adding high-occupancy-vehicle lanes for buses and car pools during rush hour. Adding the HOV lanes would also help Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, which is planning a bus rapid transit system on Fletcher from Nebraska Avenue to I-75.

County officials liked the idea, but then discovered a problem: a federal rule that encourages funding for HOV lanes on federal and state roadways — but prevents federal funds from going to local road projects with HOV lanes like Fletcher.

In other words, adding HOV lanes would boost the project's funding chances in its planners' eyes, but also sink its chances of getting any federal help.

County design team manager Tom Mueller shakes his head when asked about the dilemma. Typically, he said, solutions such as HOV lanes and bus rapid transit would be welcomed.

Long stretches of Fletcher are already chronically crowded and others are soon to follow. None of that seems to matter when it comes to funding.

Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of Hillsborough's MPO, doesn't fault the county and says there isn't much else to be done.

Getting money requires a study up front and, in the case of Fletcher Avenue, that already cost millions. Then there's the mountain of state and federal requirements.

"It's a Catch-22," he said.

The county could tap the Community Investment Tax, a sales tax-driven fund that pays for road work and public facilities. But the fund took a big hit when the economy tanked. After peaking at $107 million in 2006, it dropped to $88 million in 2010.

Given these funding dilemmas, Chiaramonte isn't hopeful Fletcher will be widened anytime soon.

"When (the Transportation Task Force) started, we were living in a different universe. There was more money available, more sales tax money available, but now the cupboard is extra bare. Everybody has had to cut back."CORRECTION: Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit's plans call for a bus rapid transit system from Nebraska Avenue to I-75. An earlier version of this story gave different parameters for the project.

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