Sunday, June 24, 2018
Transportation

We asked 14 local officials if they knew the Howard Frankland was losing a free lane. Only four did.

Confusion is swirling around the Florida Department of Transportation's plan to replace the northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge.

The state is converting one of the four lanes in each direction to a toll lane, leaving one fewer free lane for people to drive on.

Officials said this doesn't reduce the road's capacity because the outside lane in each direction is currently an "auxiliary lane" that's meant to connect on- and off- ramps, not to carry traffic between Tampa and St. Petersburg.

But politicians whom the Tampa Bay Times told about the plan last week said they felt misled by the agency, which had also talked about adding additional lanes for the tolls. DOT officials said the plan was always to convert a lane.

Read the full story: State's answer to Howard Frankland traffic: Pay a toll or lose a lane

The Times asked 14 additional local elected officials this week to explain what they thought DOT was doing when it rebuilds the bridge in 2019. Ten said they thought DOT was adding an additional lane to the bridge. Four said they knew the plan was to convert an existing lane. A 15th official said he couldn't recall knowing either way.

Here's the breakdown.

Seven of the 10 who didn't know were surprised or angry.

State Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, was surprised to hear DOT's plan.

"I always understood it as there was additional capacity added." He didn't agree with the state's characterization of how the outside lane is used. "It's definitely not an auxiliary lane."

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, felt misled.

"I never thought they would be reducing the capacity of traffic. … It's already bad enough. They don't call it the Howard Frankenstein for nothing."

Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, never expected to lose a free lane.

"I don't have a high confidence level in the plan if they're going to cut down a lane."

Hillsborough County Commissioner and Metropolitan Planning Organization Member Sandy Murman, Republican, said this version was news to her.

She does not approve of tolls on the Howard Frankland. "I think that would kill our economic development efforts and our regional efforts."

Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano, a Republican, called the plan a "joke."

"When they take these lanes and call them fancy names like managed lanes, they're clearly trying to disguise something."

State Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, wants DOT to pull the plug on the plan.

"It's outrageous. It's wrong. It's not what will help this region."

Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione, a Democrat, said no one on the Hillsborough MPO realized this.

"It is interesting that there are 16 of us and none of us caught that particular nuance."

Four local officials — three from Pinellas County — said they knew this was the plan all along.

St. Petersburg City Council member and Pinellas MPO member Jim Kennedy, a Democrat, said he was "surprised at people being surprised."

"They were very clear that what they're referring to as an auxiliary lane ... which I think everybody looks at as a through traffic lane on the bridge, was going to become a tolled lane." He opposes the plan.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, said the plan isn't perfect but something needs to be done.

"I hate to see this be another project where we had an opportunity to do something and we turned the money down trying to wait for perfection." He supports the plan.

Clearwater City Council member and Pinellas MPO member Doreen Caudell, Republican, said DOT isn't taking away a lane

"It does not slow down traffic or reduce lanes. …They're adding an express toll lane. An express lane is a toll lane. You have to pay for it." She supports the plan.

State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he knew DOT planned to convert a lane, but called it "controversial."

"I've also been under the impression that before the DOT pulls the trigger on any action there will be additional opportunities for dialogue." He thinks the bridge is "probably not going to end up with toll facilities."

The remaining three officials, who were surprised, echoed Lee, saying there is still time to change the plan before construction begins.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said the plan is still changing.

"FDOT will build what we tell them to build. If the public wants additional lanes and additional capacity, then they will put on as much capacity as we fund them to put on." He supports Tampa Bay Express, but his discussions with DOT about the proposed plans for the Howard Frankland Bridge always included adding capacity.

State Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, said officials and community members need to voice their concerns.

"To the extent we can put pressure on DOT to oppose, we will."

State Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, urged residents to attend next week's public hearings.

"I feel pretty confident there will be an outcry over this."

In previous stories, the Times has quoted two Hillsborough county commissioners, one Tampa city council member and State Sen. Jack Latvala saying they thought the plan was to add a lane.

DOT officials didn't respond to a request for comment on the new officials' statements Wednesday. They will present this plan to the public during two hearings next week: one Tuesday at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park and another Thursday at the Tampa Marriott Westshore. Both start at 5:30 p.m.

Read the full story: State's answer to Howard Frankland traffic: Pay a toll or lose a lane

Times staff writer Sara DiNatale contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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