TAMPA — Fred Hoffman recalls the turning point. It came just after Mayor Pam Iorio's election in 2003.
Temple Crest homeowners had gathered on the dilapidated 40th Street bridge to protest decades of neglect. The new Tampa mayor stood on the 50-year-old span and peered at the Hillsborough River through a basketball-sized hole in the deck.
"While she was there, two city garbage trucks crossed the bridge … and you could feel the vibrations. It felt like the whole bridge could go," said Hoffman, 70. "She said, 'Yeah, it's gotta be replaced.' "
Since the 1960s, Temple Crest homeowners have pleaded with city officials to upgrade the bridge and road between Fowler and Hillsborough avenues to correct flooding, erosion and crumbling asphalt.
They got the same answer each time. A promise from then-Mayor Nick Nuccio to the Temple Crest Civic Association wasn't unlike that of subsequent mayors. In a letter to the association, Nuccio wrote that he was aware of the problems and would correct them.
But the work never got done. And so it went for decades, with promises and more promises to widen the two-lane highway, replace the bridge and fix the flooding.
By the time Iorio reached office, residents decided they'd had enough and staged a protest. Administration officials wanted to accommodate the residents, but had little to build on.
A study to enlarge 40th Street to four lanes had been drawn up years earlier. The work was estimated conservatively at $70 million. The daunting property issues were enough to give officials pause. More than 100 pieces of land needed to be purchased to make room for a wider road.
Scores of other problems existed: Too many traffic signals slowed traffic, buses and trucks caused frequent backups, and speeders raced between traffic lights. There were no sidewalks, and the road flooded with nearly every storm.
"Every issue you could imagine we encountered with this project," Transportation Division manager Jean Dorzback said. "It took years to get the property we needed."
Those issues are over now. Today, Iorio and her staff will hold a ribbon-cutting to mark the completion of an eight-year project to widen 40th Street.
The 4-mile, four-lane highway now has lighting, landscaping, drainage, bicycle lanes, sidewalks, bus pull-outs and three traffic circles — at Hanna Avenue, River Hills Drive and Yukon Street — to slow vehicles.
"We used to have a road people would describe as something out of a Third World country and that's not an exaggeration," said Terry Neal, past president of the Temple Crest Civic Association. "Now we have a state-of-the-art road."
Dorzback estimated the entire project at $100 million. Of that, $85 million came from state and federal funds. The rest came from the city, county and Busch Gardens, which lies along 40th Street.
Funding was but one issue. Some longtime businesses, such as Marley's Furniture, couldn't stay. They were forced to move because they were too close to the road and couldn't meet setback requirements. Others, including Big John's Alabama BBQ, were able to push back from the road, and essentially remain on 40th Street.
"We had funding, acquisition and community issues," Dorzback said. "We had relocations and demolitions. The acquisition process. Eminent domain. Wetlands issues. This project had about everything a project could have. It's nothing short of a miracle that it got done the way it did."
Some neighbors were wary of proposed traffic circles, but the Temple Crest Civic Association backed the idea because they slow traffic but keep it moving. .
"They're all right. I can live with them," said resident Richard Formica. "It better than sitting at the light at Yukon and 40th Street."
About 14,000 vehicles a day travel on 40th Street. With the widening, the road can accommodate up to 30,000 vehicles daily, which should make it safe for at least 20 years, Dorzback said.
So far, residents seem pleased.
Neal said the biggest positive has been the new four-lane bridge.
"The great thing about it is that before, you went down a steep slope onto that two-lane bridge. We had people driving into the river because they missed it," he said. "Now the bridge is up a lot higher and you just drive right onto it."