Tampa Bay has one of the worst mass transit systems of similar metro areas in the nation, and it needs new investments in bus and rail networks to manage its growth and successfully compete. But better roads are an important part of the equation, too, which is why two announcements this month are so encouraging.
The Florida Department of Transportation announced plans to add an additional, free lane in both directions on the approaches to the Howard Frankland Bridge around the interchange with West Shore on the Tampa side of I-275. Motorists are all too familiar with one of the worst bottlenecks in the region, when rush-hour traffic backs up for miles on the bridge thanks to heavy congestion in West Shore.
The DOT would add a third lane in both directions, which also would improve southbound traffic to St. Petersburg. It also has signaled a change of heart, proposing to fast-track the new lanes rather than weave the project into a larger take-it-or-leave-it proposal known as Tampa Bay Next, a controversial regional highway expansion plan. The lanes could open by 2021.
Meanwhile, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority also has moved ahead with plans to build an elevated toll road connecting the Gandy Bridge to the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. Long seen as an acute regional need, the 1.6-mile-long Selmon extension will let through traffic along Gandy flow faster between Tampa and St. Petersburg, making a better connection between the area's two major downtowns, easing local traffic congestion on Gandy Boulevard and improving the emergency evacuation routes for the region.
The expressway authority awarded a $230 million construction contract, with work beginning next year and an anticipated opening date in late 2020. Officials estimate the extension will carry 19,000 vehicles per day, or 40 percent of the traffic currently on Gandy. This is a well-balanced project that will speed commutes across the bay, better protect the nearby neighborhoods and more closely link the futures of St. Petersburg and Tampa.
The region will not continue to grow and improve its quality of life without adding new bus and rail options as part of a modern transportation system. But it is no small achievement to make major improvements to the gateways of two of the three bridges connecting Pinellas and Hillsborough, and to bring those improvements on line at roughly the same time. This testifies to the hard work by local advocates and to the focus on local priorities by the DOT and expressway authority.