Tuesday, September 25, 2018

New 2024 Howard Frankland plan: 8-lane bridge with bike path

TAMPA — Plans for the Howard Frankland Bridge have changed yet again.

The Florida Department of Transportation announced Monday that it now plans to build an eight-lane bridge, complete with a bike and pedestrian trail, to replace the northbound span of the Howard Frankland. That part of the bridge, built in 1960, is old and needs to be replaced.

DOT expects the new bridge to open by 2024, local DOT secretary David Gwynn said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Imagine: Light rail along I-275 from Wesley Chapel to Tampa to St. Pete

This massive structure will have four lanes of traffic going south, to St. Petersburg. It will also have four express toll lanes, with two lanes traveling in each direction. Only drivers who pay a toll, which will fluctuate based on demand, can use those lanes.

Those toll lanes will also be available to buses and even self-driving vehicles, whenever that technology arrives in the future. And two of those toll lanes could also be converted for use by a light rail system.

[Florida Department of Transportation]

The new Howard Frankland plan is the latest in a series of moves by state transportation officials to address local concerns and rebuild relationships with Tampa Bay political leaders and residents.

Much of that friction was created by the rollout of Tampa Bay Express, a controversial plan to add 90 miles of toll lanes to bay area interstates. In December, state officials hit the pause button on TBX. Then in May the state rolled out the similar but more flexible Tampa Bay Next initiative. Gwynn took over as DOT's secretary for the Tampa Bay region in June.

The result, according to local leaders and transportation planners, has been a more open process with state leaders who were willing to listen to suggestions rather than say "no" immediately.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Goodbye Tampa Bay Express, hello Tampa Bay Next; but toll lanes aren't going anywhere

"It's a breath of fresh air, (for DOT) to be more transparent, more clear," said Whit Blanton, executive director of the Pinellas County transportation planning agency, Forward Pinellas. "Yes, they're still saying there are going to be some things they won't be able to do. But they're being a lot more clear about how those decisions are made."

The bridge announcement comes just days after a regional transit study selected light rail from Wesley Chapel to Tampa across the bay to St. Petersburg as the highest-ranking transit option with the most likelihood of being built in the near future.

The new bridge, estimated to cost $750 million, leaves room for just such a system.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: DOT reverses course, says it won't take free Howard Frankland lane

This is the latest iteration in a string of changing plans for Tampa Bay's most traveled bridge.

A year ago, the state's plan was to put the toll on an existing lane, leaving those unwilling to pay with only three lanes of traffic on the often-congested bridge. The state scrapped that idea after facing intense backlash from community members and elected officials for taking away a free lane.

In January, officials came back with a different option: build a six-lane bridge, with one toll lane in each direction, costing an estimated $630 million.

But people had concerns with that, too: what happens if there's a crash in the toll lane and emergency vehicles can't get through? Where would any future light rail tracks go? Would buses in the single toll lane slow down traffic?

The latest Howard Frankland plan, local leaders said, shows the state is starting to listen to them. For instance, the latest bridge proposal includes a bike and pedestrian path — something the counties' transportation groups had asked repeatedly for but to no avail.

"We were told 'absolutely not' in 2016," Blanton said.

Construction is expected to start in 2020 and last four years, Gwynn said. Officials believe the project will have a minimal impact on traffic, as both spans will remain open while the new segment is built.

Once the new bridge is constructed, traffic will flip on the current southbound span, built in 1990. That segment will become the new northbound bridge, for those driving to Tampa.

The old 1960s bridge will then be demolished.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: How the plan to fix Tampa Bay's most important bridge fell apart, told in Legos

The new eight-lane, bike and pedestrian-friendly bridge is projected to cost $120 million more than the six-lane version. However, that old Howard Frankland plan required building a third bridge to accommodate light rail, if regional leaders and voters ever decide to build such a system connecting Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. That third bridge would have cost at least $375 million, DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said.

The third bridge won't be necessary under the updated plan, Carson said. Instead, two of the express lanes on the eight-lane bridge could be used to accommodate light rail.

The 1990s bridge — which, at that point, would be the northbound bridge to Tampa — would need to be expanded to replace the two toll lanes on the new bridge that would be dedicated to light rail. Such an expansion would cost $190 million in today's dollars, Carson said, bringing the total for the new bridge and light rail accommodations to just under $1 billion.

Gwynn said the motivation behind the latest Howard Frankland vision is to ensure the new structure, which will be around for about 75 years, is best equipped to accommodate more people moving to the area, developments in driverless cars and any transit projects that might take shape.

"I've tasked the staff to take off any preconceived notions about, 'This is how things have to be done, because this is how we've always done it,' " Gwynn said. "Look at the full gamut of opportunities and let's see where that takes us."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

Commute times reach nearly half an hour, note backers of tax hike for transportation

Commute times reach nearly half an hour, note backers of tax hike for transportation

TAMPA — Something to ponder the next time you’re stuck on Dale Mabry Highway during rush hour: The average commute for people in Hillsborough County now pushes half an hour.U.S. Census Bureau data released this month shows a 28.3 minute average commu...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Could Trump starve a Tampa Bay transit project of federal funds?

Could Trump starve a Tampa Bay transit project of federal funds?

ST. PETERSBURG — The Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit line has succeeded where other Tampa Bay transit projects have failed. The project aimed at connecting downtown to the beaches has avoided anti-transit sentiment while securing money and support f...
Published: 09/21/18
Local hospital groups back transportation sales tax plan with $175,000 in donations

Local hospital groups back transportation sales tax plan with $175,000 in donations

TAMPA — Two local hospital groups have donated a combined $175,000 to the group campaigning for a sales tax hike to pay for transportation improvements. They say the ballot measure will increase access to medical care and provide transportation optio...
Published: 09/14/18
Hillsborough MPO holds Southshore transit meeting

Hillsborough MPO holds Southshore transit meeting

Hillsborough MPO will hold an open house from 5:30-7 p.m. on Thursday (Sept. 13) at the SouthShore Regional Library, 15816 Beth Shields Way in Ruskin. The open house will cover the SouthShore Transit Study reevaluation.All residents who want better t...
Updated one month ago

Pasco road planners push path beneath U.S. 19 bridge for pedestrian safety

PORT RICHEY — More than a decade after the city of Port Richey studied the idea of building a pedestrian path beneath U.S. 19 at the Pithlachascotee River bridge, county transportation leaders are poised to do likewise.Later this month, the Pasco Met...
Updated one month ago
State: BRT could get its own lane on new Howard Frankland Bridge

State: BRT could get its own lane on new Howard Frankland Bridge

The Florida Department of Transportation says it has a back-up plan to create a dedicated lane for bus rapid transit on the new Howard Frankland Bridge in case the current plan for BRT doesn’t work out.A draft request for proposals to design and buil...
Updated one month ago
Serious upgrade, from golf carts to Teslas, for riders of free downtown shuttle

Serious upgrade, from golf carts to Teslas, for riders of free downtown shuttle

TAMPA — Many people who ride the free, app-based shuttle known as the Downtowner are getting a shock this month when their driver pulls up.Since it launched two years ago, the service has relied on a fleet of GEM electric vehicles that look like elon...
Updated one month ago