One of the better ideas for improving the local road network is back in play. Transportation officials are revisiting a proposal to build elevated lanes over Gandy Boulevard in Tampa. The project would help thousands of daily commuters who cross the Gandy Bridge, homeowners and businesses along the Gandy corridor and Pinellas residents who may need to evacuate when a hurricane approaches. This is an important project that needs to get off the ground.
The concept is simple: Build elevated lanes to connect the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway from its end at Dale Mabry Highway to the Gandy Bridge. The 1.6-mile link would enable commuters traveling between South Tampa and St. Petersburg to bypass the congestion below on Gandy and make a faster, safer and easier commute across the bay.
State and local officials have looked at a Gandy connector for decades, but politics, costs and other concerns have trumped smart transportation planning. Many nearby residents fear that an overhead bypass will increase noise and reduce their property values. Some businesses along Gandy contend that a bypass would take paying customers off the road, starving restaurants, gas stations and other businesses from impulse customers who now regularly travel Gandy. But the elevated lanes would complement the ground-level street, and there are ways to protect the neighborhoods.
Officials estimate about 40 percent of the 48,000 cars and trucks that use Gandy daily is pass-through traffic. These are people rushing to work, home or the interstates, not shoppers looking to stop at restaurants or retail shops on busy Gandy Boulevard. Taking this traffic to an elevated deck would make Gandy a more attractive choice for local commuters, many of whom now avoid the area, especially at rush hour, when traffic into Tampa often backs up to the bridge.
The Tampa stretch of Gandy is cluttered, thanks to its dual role as a local road and a main highway between two counties. It is unattractive as a shopping destination, and doing nothing means that Gandy will only further deteriorate. An upper deck would enable Gandy to recast its look and feel, and provide an opportunity to create a pedestrian atmosphere where one doesn't exist. This would improve the area's quality of life, helping property values and the area's business climate.
An elevated bypass in Tampa also would pair well with work being done on the Pinellas side of the bridge, where the state is building an elevated road from east of Interstate 275 to east of Fourth Street. Work is expected to be completed in 2017. It makes no sense to address the traffic bubble on one side of the bridge and ignore another one on the opposite end. The goal should be a seamless connection between the Selmon Expressway in Hillsborough to I-275 in Pinellas, which should also ease traffic using the Howard Frankland Bridge along I-275.
The Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority will hold outreach community efforts this year. The authority is perfectly suited to undertake such a project, and it should work with the community in good faith to put a proposal on the table. The Gandy is a regional resource for residents, tourists and business travelers, and it is a key route for evacuating Pinellas residents in an emergency. The Gandy connector should be a key piece of the transportation puzzle, and the sooner the better.