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Funding, planning in place for I-4 connector

There's nothing like a good rattling of the table to interrupt a romantic meal of paella marinara and a glass of sangria.

The rumbling isn't coming from the flamenco dancers of the historic Columbia Restaurant.

It's coming from the passing trucks outside. They use the Ybor City street beside the restaurant as a truck route between Interstate 4 and industrial sites to the south.

That's why owners at the Columbia were nothing short of giddy about Thursday's announcement from state and local transportation officials: The long-awaited construction of the Crosstown Connector has been funded and planned _ promising to take all those noisy, fork-rattling trucks with it.

"We're ecstatic," said Columbia president Richard Gonzmart.

The $283-million project has been programmed for fiscal year 2009-2010, according to a joint announcement by the Florida Department of Transportation and the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority.

The money will come from federal, state and Florida Turnpike Enterprise funds, with $80-million of the total recently committed by the turnpike enterprise, said Ken Hartmann, the DOT's District 7 secretary.

The connector, which will bridge Interstate 4 and the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway along the west side of 31st Street, will give trucks an alternative and direct route to the Port of Tampa so that they won't have to rumble through the streets of Ybor City, officials said. The link also will let drivers bypass the junction of Interstates 4 and 275 when they're driving between east Hillsborough and South Tampa.

The project is part of a five-year transporation program that is subject to approval by the Florida Legislature this July, Hartmann said.

The connector link will have a toll of its own, but officials do not yet know how much it will cost, although it is likely to be under $1, Hartmann said.

Hartmann has called the Crosstown Connector the most important unfunded, regionally significant transportation project in the Tampa Bay area.

It will help commerce by moving goods back and forth to the port more easily and relieve the restaurant owners and shoppers in Ybor City.

Construction probably will not start until sometime in mid 2009 at the earliest, Hartmann said, and officials do not yet know how long it will take.

Gonzmart, of the Columbia Restaurant, said the wait will be worth it. While he sympathizes with truckers trying to make their way to the port, he said his patrons have to contend with the traffic.

The restaurant straddles 21st and 22nd streets, both one-way routes to and from the interstate that trucks frequently use to get to the port. The trucks have shaken _ and damaged _ the walls.

"There's no place for trucks running down these streets," he said. "(The connector) will improve the historic district of Seventh Avenue and make Ybor City safer and nicer."