Sunday, February 18, 2018
Transportation

Toll road linking U.S. 19, I-275 to have variable cost

ST. PETERSBURG — How much would you pay to save 13 minutes of drive time between U.S. 19 and Interstate 275, or the Bayside Bridge and the interstate?

State transportation officials are figuring 75 cents, and eventually more.

That is likely to be the cost of a one-way toll for the planned Gateway Express, an elevated expressway that is slated to open in 2021, state transportation officials told the County Commission this week.

At some point the toll will become "variable," adjusted in real time based on congestion levels, said Debbie Hunt, planning director for the Florida Department of Transportation. The toll amount will be displayed on overhead electronic signs before each entrance so drivers have time to decide to use the express lanes or stay in the free local lanes.

The theory behind the so-called dynamic tolling: Charge more during rush hours so thriftier drivers stick to the surface streets, reducing the number of cars on the toll road to keep traffic flowing.

More than 20 years in the planning, the project will feature a 3.3-mile east-west segment that runs from U.S. 19 N near 118th Avenue to I-275. The 3-mile north-south segment will begin at the Bayside Bridge just north of Roosevelt Boulevard, travel past St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and merge with the first piece at 118th Avenue.

Officials say the toll road will shave nine to 13 minutes off travel time between U.S. 19 and I-275 and between the Bayside Bridge the interstate.

The project wasn't slated to begin for another 20 years, but Gov. Rick Scott announced in February that he would make $131 million available toward the estimated $338 million construction cost. Pinellas County will contribute $60 million.

On Tuesday, Hunt's presentation put the total cost at $454.3 million, including slightly higher construction costs and $93.5 million to purchase rights of way. DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said money for the right-of-way acquisitions was already included in the department's five-year spending plan.

A variable tolling system — what some refer to as the "Lexus lane" — has been in place in Miami since 2008, when the Interstate 95 Express lanes opened. Officials were surprised by how many drivers were willing to pay a premium to use the 7-mile segment, so this year the DOT increased the maximum toll from $7 to $10.50.

"People pay it because they know they're going to get there in the time frame they expect," Hunt said.

Pinellas commissioners were pleased to hear that the toll would start at 75 cents, but it will be interesting to see what the market will bear when the toll is adjusted based on congestion, said Charlie Justice.

"If the floor is lower, that means the ceiling is lower, too, and if people have the choice, that's a good thing," Justice said. "If you're living in South Tampa and working in Palm Harbor, that might be the cost of convenience."

A series of public meetings on the Gateway Express project will be held next year.

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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