TAMPA — Navigating Gandy Boulevard is a major pain these days. Construction crews have dug up one side of the road in Tampa, compressing traffic into a narrow corridor. Everything backs up whenever a driver stops to make a left turn.
The road will stay torn up for another year as workers repave it and add a 30-foot-wide median to the middle.
Why such a large median?
Neighbors and businesses along Gandy suspect it's being put there to clear a path for a longtime dream of road officials: an elevated expressway down the middle of the boulevard that would link the Gandy Bridge to the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. That would help with regional traffic flow and Pinellas County hurricane evacuations.
This idea got killed five years ago by fierce neighborhood opposition and budget shortfalls. But now it's back.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out,'' said Al Steenson, president of the Gandy Civic Association. "There isn't another road in the city of Tampa that has a 30-foot median strip.''
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The city of Tampa, the state Department of Transportation and the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority say they're having preliminary talks about an elevated expressway, but insist no one will decide on a plan without a lot of public discussion first. They say the road wouldn't be built for years, if ever.
"If you can find something that 90 percent of the people approve of, and it's a viable solution, then it could happen," said authority spokeswoman Sue Chrzan.
Different versions of the road called the Gandy Connector have been proposed over the last 15 years — either a bypass south of Gandy, or a four-lane elevated highway along the north side of the boulevard. After those ideas were scrapped in late 2002, authority officials talked of two elevated lanes running down the center of Gandy. That may be the most likely option at this point.
Neighbors fear an elevated expressway would be ugly, noisy and bad for business along the busy commercial thoroughfare.
But the city is worried about worsening traffic problems. A 2006 study predicted a perpetual traffic jam around Gandy and West Shore boulevards, with future development putting as many as 80,000 cars a day on a road system equipped to handle only 34,000 cars, or 50,000 after the current construction work.
An elevated highway would take pressure off the local roads.
"What is the impact of not doing anything?" Chrzan asked. "The traffic is bad enough now. Are people avoiding the area because of that? How will businesses be affected? That's one of the things we have to look at."
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Gandy Boulevard has long been in bad shape — both the blacktop and the foundation beneath it. So in January the state started a long-delayed $21-million project to make the boulevard safer and more attractive along the 21/2 miles between Dale Mabry Highway and the bridge.
Aside from repaving and improving the drainage, they'll add decorative lighting and brick crosswalks, new sidewalks and traffic signals, and a trail near the bridge for biking and walking.
As for that landscaped 30-foot-wide median, road officials say it gives them options for future expansion of the roadway.
"We always design for 20 years out. We want to maintain as much future flexibility as we can," said Jeff Novotny, a DOT consultant overseeing the Gandy project. Regarding an elevated highway, he said, "We didn't want to box the corridor in and say, 'You can't do that,' so that in 20 or 30 years people won't be saying, 'Why didn't they think of that back then?' "
But he said the median's main purpose is to prevent accidents. It's replacing a center turn lane that ran down the middle of Gandy until just recently.
Center turn lanes like Gandy's have fallen out of favor, with medians considered safer because they reduce the number of places where crashes can occur. Elsewhere in Tampa, the state is taking similar steps on Hillsborough Avenue and Busch Boulevard — a move that has displeased some business owners.
Instead of turning left in front of oncoming traffic, drivers on Gandy will be able to turn only at eight intersections as well as some businesses. And the median's width will give vehicles on the four-lane road enough space to make U-turns at intersections.
"It's a philosophical shift," Novotny said.
The project will take two years, though the bulk of the road work between the bridge and Dale Mabry will be finished in a year. Sometime around August, they'll switch traffic to the north side of the boulevard while they work on the south side.
As for the future, many neighbors don't want an overpass but are well aware of the area's growing traffic problems, said Steenson of the Gandy Civic Association.
"Something's got to be done. I think everybody recognizes that now," he said. "I don't know what it's going to be. How that's accomplished, in what form, no one can tell."
And many suspect that an elevated expressway is coming someday, no matter what.
"They're going to do it, trust me. It might be 2035 before they do it, who knows?" said Jerry Frankhouser, president of the Bayside West Neighborhood Association, who opposes the idea. "This is our Main Street. How many places does your main business district have a bridge down the middle of it?"
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.