TAMPA — Not far from the pedestrian-friendly stretches of Ybor City's Seventh Avenue, trucks barrel through historic streets at the rate of thousands per day.
Serving as main arteries between Interstate 4 and the Port of Tampa, 21st and 22nd streets are often filled with traffic. Surrounding businesses quake as trucks hauling everything from automobiles to hazardous materials navigate the narrow city streets.
Without many storefronts, sidewalks in this section of the historic district often go unused. The buildings are geared toward more industrial uses, a product of years of heavy traffic.
Soon, that will change.
An elevated toll road connecting I-4 with the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway — decades in the making — opens Friday.
The $425 million project is expected to ease traffic congestion in Ybor City, make commuting between southeastern Hillsborough County and I-4 easier and bolster business at the Port of Tampa.
With dedicated truck lanes for direct port access, a truck can theoretically travel from the port to Los Angeles or Canada without ever hitting a traffic light, said Tampa Port Authority president Paul Anderson.
That's a boon for port business. Allowing trucks to bypass the city streets will save transportation companies time and money.
"We'll be able to market around the world," Anderson said.
The project was funded in part — about $105 million — by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which served to jump start the economy by creating jobs and investing in infrastructure.
"The project is huge," said Greg Nadeau, deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, speaking at a ribbon-cutting event Saturday morning. "It creates direct jobs during construction, but more importantly the efficiency to the port creates economic growth in the long run. This kind of investment serves the community immediately and for decades to come."
And it could save a neglected part of Ybor City, which is one of only a few national historic landmark districts in the state.
"There really are barriers to growth right now," said Vince Pardo, manager of the Ybor City Development Corp. "If it wasn't for the Columbia Restaurant, I don't think anyone would cross 21st Street."
Once the connector opens, the state plans to redesign the two one-way streets to make them more pedestrian-friendly, Pardo said.
"We want to make it much more like a kind of Seventh Avenue ambiance with some benches and trees," Pardo said. "That will help attract more businesses and retailers."
The state intends to turn the streets over to the city of Tampa, Pardo said. He is hopeful a city ordinance will eventually be passed to prohibit truck traffic on the streets entirely.
"It has been a long process, but thankfully the federal stimulus money became available," Pardo said.
The new road will help commuters, as well, allowing them to bypass busy city streets or congested Interstate 75 to travel between south Hillsborough County and Interstate 275.
Using an all-electronic collection system, drivers will be able to maintain highway speeds. Toll collection will be done solely through SunPass and Toll-by-Plate.
Tolls will vary, depending on number of axles and route, starting at 50 cents. Trucks will pay $1 to $1.25 per trip.
After the ribbon-cutting, the state hosted a 5K race, giving runners a one-time chance to experience the road as pedestrians ahead of its opening this week. About 1,000 runners crowded onto the elevated roadway, sneaking sweeping views of Tampa as they ran.
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.