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More lanes, electronic tolls coming to Veterans Expressway

TAMPA — One casualty of the bad economy was a delay in the widening of the Veterans Expressway.

Now, the gloomy economy is the reason the work is being revived.

Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, the agency that manages Florida's toll roads, says it will break ground on a $172 million widening next summer to help create jobs.

Seven miles of the expressway between Gunn Highway (Exit 10) and Memorial Highway (Exit 3) will be widened from four lanes to eight. As part of the project, the expressway's tollbooths will be replaced with overhead Sunpass sensors so drivers won't have to slow down. About 75 percent of the expressway's drivers use Sunpass.

Two years ago, the project was shelved, and officials couldn't say when it would happen.

The turnaround comes as the Florida Department of Transportation looks to add more highway lanes using toll revenue.

Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad announced last week that 11 state highway projects, including those delayed or shelved because of the economic downturn, will now be pushed forward in order to spur job growth.

"Road projects mean jobs," Turnpike Enterprise spokeswoman Christa Deason said.

They also might mean relief for thousands of frustrated commuters.

About 170,000 vehicles travel the 14-mile Veterans Expressway each weekday, most during the morning and afternoon rush hours.

The biggest bottleneck is concentrated around the Anderson Road toll plaza. But backups also spring up at the expressway's exit ramps and can trail back onto the highway, creating more gridlock.

The project can't come soon enough for Angie LaPlant of Northdale, just north of Carrollwood. Her 25-minute commute easily doubles if she leaves home 10 or 15 minutes later than usual.

"There have been times where I've missed my window of opportunity and it's taken an hour or more to get to work," said LaPlant, who works at AAA Auto Club South on West Shore Boulevard between Cypress and Spruce streets.

The result, she said, is a no-win early morning grind. Because LaPlant leaves early to avoid traffic, she's forced to roll out of bed sooner and arrive at work early, sometimes by a half-hour or more.

But it's either that or sit in traffic a half-hour and arrive late.

"It's not just the time sitting in traffic, it's the bottlenecks," she said. "Everybody is weaving in and out of lanes, trying to get into the Sunpass-only lane. It's frustrating."

The same problem happens on the trip home. If LaPlant leaves work at 5:15 instead of 5 p.m., she can expect a grueling hourlong commute.

"I have to be out the door at 5," she said.

Deason said the widening will be completed in 2015 and done in three phases. Some toll plazas will be reconfigured earlier than others. Eventually, all of the cash-only booths will be removed so that all tolls are collected electronically.

"That's one of the things we hear over and over again from our customers, that they want the electronic, open-road tolling," she said.

More lanes, electronic tolls coming to Veterans Expressway 08/13/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 13, 2011 10:16pm]
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