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Help's on the way for Expressway _ in four years

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Anyone who does the Brandon-Tampa commute every day soon learns that the drive in on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway is not the problem.

The problem is just getting on the expressway and, at rush hour, waiting in what can be a mile-long line of cars to pay at the toll booth.

"When I say it's bumper to bumper, it's horrendous, either going in in the morning or coming home at night," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Dottie Berger, who makes the drive every day, sometimes several times a day.

The good news is that the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority borrowed $144-million on the bond market Tuesday to pay for a variety of projects designed to move traffic more quickly to, from or on the 14-mile-long toll road. Electronic toll booths are on the way. And part of the money will pay for several new "feeder" roads to funnel traffic from Brandon Boulevard and Lumsden Road to the expressway.

The bad news is that the 3 miles of feeder roads probably will not be finished for at least four years.

The main feeder road will connect to the expressway near Interstate 75, just south of the Brandon TownCenter mall. From there, it will move traffic to Providence Road, Lakewood Drive and Pauls Drive. With right of way _ some of which already has been acquired _ the road is expected to cost about $50-million.

Although the expressway authority is building the feeder roads, there will not be a toll charged to use them. That is because the authority has agreed to build the roads as its repayment for about $45-million in gasoline tax money that was used to make annual debt payments on the expressway's original construction bonds.

"The bonds that were sold 20 years ago were backed by the county's gas tax, but we have sufficient revenues today that that's not necessary," said Pat McCue, an engineer and the authority's executive director.

The Expressway Authority now collects $15-million in tolls a year and plans to use toll revenue alone to repay the new set of bonds. Officials expect toll revenue to increase to $45-million annually during the next 30 years.

The new bonds will pay for designing new lanes on the expressway between I-75 and downtown Tampa, as well as for planning a connection between the expressway and Interstate 4. That connection is expected to be built near 30th Street, just east of Ybor City.

"The projected traffic growth on this facility is very substantial," McCue said. With just a few years, the number of cars and trucks using the expressway is expected to rise from 75,000 to 100,000 per day. "That's why we're designing the additional lanes on the expressway now."

Future bond issues will pay for the construction of the new lanes and the connection to I-4, McCue said.

For now, about two-thirds of the money from Tuesday's bond issue will refinance the authority's original construction debt from the 1970s.

With the rest of the bond proceeds, the authority plans to begin preliminary design and engineering for the feeder roads.

"We're trying to meet the expectation that the county and the people in Brandon have for us to build these projects quickly," McCue said. "Our schedule is to have construction under way within two to three years."

Other projects will take place sooner. Starting next July, the authority plans to begin installing electronic toll booths that will allow motorists to drive through at 20 to 25 mph instead of coming to a stop. Equipment at the new toll booths and plazas will identify each car via a transponder in the window and automatically deduct the toll from a pre-paid account.

McCue said the new booths also will photograph the license tags of anyone who drives through the electronic booths illegally and automatically mail a fine.

The electronic toll collection is expected to begin by December 1998. Authority officials also plan to improve landscaping, modify access ramps and intersections in high-traffic areas, update signs and install more lights for the parking lots under the expressway in downtown Tampa.