The Florida Department of Transportation will hold public hearings this week on plans to rebuild the northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge. The state should acknowledge from the start that merely replacing a span that doesn't serve the Tampa Bay area's transportation needs today makes no sense for the long-term future of the region. The DOT needs to include a mass transit component as part of the bridge and commit to playing a major role in building it. A multimodal transit system is essential for this region to meet its growth potential in the coming decades.
The meetings on Tuesday in St. Petersburg and Thursday in Tampa are opportunities for public input in how to replace a bridge that opened in 1959 and is nearing the end of its useful life. Among the options is pairing a new, four-lane span with so-called "transit envelopes" that could accommodate express bus, rail or tolled lanes for vehicles. Toll lanes and dedicated space for buses and high-occupancy vehicles could take some of the vehicular traffic now congesting the general traffic lanes. But the toll lanes are moneymakers first, and they don't come close to providing the opportunities to move people more efficiently between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, open up more economic opportunities and better unite the region.
The DOT is still studying its options, but it needs to consider more than the up-front costs for a future bridge. Express lanes alone would be cheaper, adding about $339 million to the cost of the $390 million bridge project, compared to $989 million for a mass transit guideway. But auto lanes are not nearly as adaptable as transit lines for moving ever-increasing traffic. The Howard Frankland is the primary bridge over Old Tampa Bay, carrying an average of 142,000 vehicles per day. DOT expects that volume to increase to 200,000 vehicles by 2040. The bridge is also a critical emergency evacuation route for this coastal area. The question is not what's an expedient solution for replacing a bridge in its 60th year, but what will the region need over the course of the coming century.
Including room for rail also meets the vision of every serious regional transit plan over the last decade. The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority was formed in 2007 for the specific purpose of better connecting the region, and its latest master plan, updated in June, calls for rail over the Howard Frankland. Rail is the backbone of every cross-bay transit plan in Hillsborough, and Pinellas envisions a rail connection over the bay as it prepares for a transit tax referendum next year that would include money to build a county rail system. Accommodating rail was one reason DOT preserved a 44-foot corridor along I-275 from the Howard Frankland into Tampa, and from there along I-4 into Orlando.
The planning stage is not the time to scrounge for quick fixes. Gov. Rick Scott may want to use toll roads to compensate for not investing state money into transportation, but the reality is that rail will never connect the bay area if the state passes all of the responsibility and the costs onto local taxpayers. A new Howard Frankland could change the game, but only if the project improves the region's inadequate transit system and opens the door to new possibilities.