TAMPA — The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority hasn't committed to a bridge linking the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway to the Gandy Bridge, but that isn't stopping its opponents.
The project, they say, would divide South Tampa and destroy businesses on Gandy Boulevard.
"To me, there is nothing good from having a business under a bridge," said Mark Rubio, a South Tampa resident and commercial property owner. "Businesses just don't grow under bridges."
The authority earlier this month approved a study required to build the two-lane bridge but says it hasn't decided whether to move forward on the $130 million project to connect St. Petersburg to downtown Tampa, Brandon and Interstate 75.
Currently, drivers exiting the bridge have to drive about 2 miles east on Gandy Boulevard to reach the expressway's entrance at S Dale Mabry Highway. Business owners say a bridge to bypass Gandy Boulevard would mean losing thousands of drive-by customers and could separate them from customers north and south of Gandy. Others say it would destroy neighborhoods by creating a noisy barrier.
In a concession to residents and business owners who spoke against the plan, the authority's board called for a study to gauge attitudes toward the proposal.
Joe Waggoner, the expressway's executive director, said he will report back to the board in September about the scope and nature of that study.
If the authority moves forward, it will also need to complete a traffic and economic analysis to show lenders that the project would succeed.
Meanwhile, opponents say they've turned in 1,500 signatures of people against the plan and that they're trying to set up a meeting this week or next to decide on a strategy. Residents and business owners have been fighting the idea since it was introduced in 2008.
Al Steenson, president of the Gandy/Sun Bay South Civic Association, argues the authority should respect community concerns and that the agency's studies three years ago don't reflect current traffic levels or economic conditions.
The project would further hurt businesses by cutting drive-by traffic, he added.
"You put a 30-foot high elevated road down Gandy Boulevard and you will destroy this neighborhood," Steenson said.
"Most of the business here will go under," said Mikael Eskildsen, owner of Scan Design, a furniture store on Gandy Boulevard. "Everybody here has drive-by business: gas stations, liquor stores and banks. People stop here and do their shopping. But with this bridge, there won't be any off ramps. Forget it. They're going to be gone."
The authority estimates that traffic on Gandy will swell to about 48,100 cars a day by 2015, up from about 45,000 now. If the bridge is built, traffic on Gandy will drop to about 36,200 cars. Some 19,000 vehicles will take the new bridge, including drivers who otherwise would have used the Howard Frankland Bridge.
Tolls are estimated at 25 cents to 50 cents and would be collected electronically through Sunpass or the expressway's high-speed camera system.