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Malfunction Junction fund plan in question

The idea of moving traffic smoothly through Tampa's notorious Malfunction Junction interchange recently has become something of a political Blarney stone. When election time nears, politicians line up to kiss it.

In 1994, Gov. Lawton Chiles and U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Tampa, sought re-election against tough opponents and promised fast-track improvements to the Interstate 4-Interstate 275 interchange.

Hillsborough County officials now have added those same improvements to a list of road work and other public works projects they would embark on if voters agree on Sept. 3 to raise the county's sales tax by half a penny.

On Thursday, however, county officials learned that the city of Tampa had not _ as they had assumed _ included funds for improvements to the interchange in its own list of sales-tax projects.

City and county officials had discussed Malfunction Junction in recent weeks, and the county's plan estimated it would use $11.1-million from the sales tax increase to speed up improvements. County officials assumed the city would kick in $5.5-million over six years.

On Wednesday, when Tampa released a five-year plan for spending its first $42.2-million share of sales tax money, it did not include any funds for the interchange.

"I said that's a good idea, but I didn't realize that they wanted part of our dollars to do it with," Mayor Dick Greco said Thursday.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik said, "It was news to us that the city didn't know about the actions we took a week ago. . . . I wouldn't have been talking to the mayor if the county was going to do this all by itself."

Turanchik hurried to Tampa City Hall to seek a change in the city's plan. He described the problem as "a minor detail," but could not say with certainty whether it would jeopardize the plans to fix Malfunction Junction sooner rather than later.

"I hope not," he said. "I don't anticipate that it will."

Over 30 years, the proposed sales tax increase would raise an estimated $2.7-billion for new schools, road projects, public works projects and a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

City Council members delayed approving Greco's proposed project list for a week so they could study it, but they left unclear what, if anything, they will do about the interchange.

To Dee Williams, the attention being paid again to Malfunction Junction seems a bit too convenient.

"They know it's a bone of contention, so it gets attention for just a little bit," said Williams, a retired AT&T employee who is president of the Sun City Center Republican Club. "Once it all blows over, it doesn't get any more attention."

After Chiles and Gibbons made their promises in 1994 about getting federal money for the interchange within five years, Congress decided not to allocate the funds.

Turanchik, however, counters that "that's not a fair criticism." Until two years ago, officials had no plans for a solution to Malfunction Junction that would not cost upward of $700-million.

Then officials managed to get $15-million for design and right-of-way acquisition put into the state's transportation budget and came up with a plan for a temporary fix.

If Congress had allocated money for construction, Turanchik said the project would have proceeded. Because it didn't, he said local officials are looking for another way to do the work.

Only in Tampa, he said, could an attempt to improve the interchange be seen as some cynical form of manipulation.

"What are we supposed to do?" Turanchik said. "Not do things to help the community?"