TAMPA — It's the most expensive single road project Tampa Bay has ever seen.
And it's only a mile long.
It will cost $1 to drive, but you can't use cash.
Planned for more than two decades, shovel-ready for two years, it wouldn't be breaking ground Monday without federal stimulus money.
Transportation officials call it simply "the Connector,'' a $389.5 million toll road linking Interstate 4 and the Leroy Selmon Crosstown Expressway east of Ybor City.
It has one main aim: Get trucks out of Ybor City's historic district.
But it also will give commuters a quicker, smoother path between the two heavily traveled highways. And it will provide a new evacuation route in the event of a hurricane.
It's scheduled to open in three years.
"Between moving people and moving goods, it's been a huge priority to get this done," said John McShaffrey, spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation.
About $87 million of the total cost is from federal stimulus funds. The tolls will be used to repay some of the tab, though the federal stimulus money is a grant that will not be repaid.
The project has been on the books since the late 1980s and delayed for lack of funding, McShaffrey said.
It's more expensive than the complex series of ramps built around Tampa International Airport that cost $215 million and took four years to finish, causing repeated confusion from frequent changes in traffic patterns.
The Connector, however, is not expected to affect commuters as much, because the bulk of the work will be done over land that's mostly trees and cleared space, McShaffrey said.
Still, drivers can expect some lane shifting on I-4, the Selmon Expressway, State Road 60 and some smaller cross streets, but mostly at night.
Crews have started relocating utilities in the area, like electric cables and sewer lines. They permanently closed Fifth Avenue between 31st Street and the CSX railroad tracks at the edge of the project, as well as Long Street from 24th Street east to where the road dead ends.
When the project is finished, trucks headed to the Port of Tampa will no longer threaten the historic buildings lining Ybor's narrow streets or sit idling at traffic lights.
Instead they'll cruise over about a dozen elevated lanes, through automated toll stations that will not take cash. Motorists will need a SunPass or to sign up for a program that photographs their license plates and bills them.
Now drivers moving between the two highways must use surface streets or take Interstate 75.
"This will be a free-flowing route. That'd be a bargain for $1," McShaffrey said.
The base of each overpass around Ybor will have arches, brickwork and landscaping in an attempt to blend in with the neighborhood. The part closer to the port will be decorated with mosaic-like color blocks resembling shipping containers.
While it's the biggest project on DOT's list, McShaffrey can rattle off dozens more, notably the reconstruction of Interstate 275 between downtown Tampa and the Howard Frankland Bridge, which is trucking along slowly but surely.
The widening of northbound I-275 between Himes and downtown is finished, and crews are wrapping up work to shift southbound traffic to the old northbound lanes. That should be done by the end of March. The final section is scheduled to begin in 2013.
Having the Connector in place before completing the I-275 project will help move traffic around construction zones, McShaffrey said. "You know, there will always be transportation needs to take care of as long as Florida keeps growing," he said. "Things don't last forever."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.