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Part-time job develops into pricey building

It started with a small job: A part-time employee at a computer keyboard would open and close some gates on the elevated lanes of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.

It ended with a big building: a $6-million gleaming headquarters for the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority with a commanding view of downtown, built with state money.

This is a story about how a government agency turned a simple task into the justification for a multimillion-dollar project. To save the expense of adding part-time help, the Expressway Authority proposed to partner with Tampa city government to run the elevated lanes. Then it won a state grant for a new building, pledging to unite regional traffic operations under one roof.

It hasn't worked out that way. County and state agencies went their own ways and are spending millions more on separate buildings. Tampa had hoped to save money through the project, but that's not looking likely anymore, either.

Officials at the Expressway Authority said the three-story, 28,000-square-foot office in the Channel District maximizes taxpayer money. But to others, the building, which features floor-to-ceiling lobby windows and a state-of-the-art video wall, symbolizes governmental excess.

"Every million dollars you spend on administration or rent or ownership of these facilities are roads and infrastructure that's not going to be developed or reconstructed or repaved," said Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch Inc.

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The building had its roots in the Expressway Authority's vision for an elevated thoroughfare to connect downtown Tampa to the Brandon suburbs.

The expressway would flow in one direction toward downtown in the morning, then reverse directions in the afternoon back to the suburbs.

The $370-million project was set back a year after a section of the elevated road under construction collapsed in unstable ground in 2004.

When the lanes open, now expected in August, the authority needs someone to operate the software that opens and closes gates at the entrances to the elevated lanes.

The job amounts to entering commands into a computer four times daily. The agency also wanted a supervisor to sign off at each switch.

For this task, the Expressway Authority estimated it would have spent about $250,000 annually to contract two part-time technicians. It concluded that it could eliminate that expense, plus rent for aging downtown offices, by pairing with other governments to run the project.

That's how it justified the new building. To pay for it, the Expressway Authority applied for a grant under a state program that funded transportation projects and economic development.

The agency claimed the building would help police and fire departments - also to be located in the building - improve their response time.

It said the reversible lanes project would help keep MacDill Air Force Base off the nation's base-closing list.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson weighed in with a letter, touting how the elevated lanes would improve access to MacDill.

The Expressway Authority received $9-million to buy technology for the elevated lanes and to build the "transportation management center."

Tom Gibbs, the board chairman, said other cities would have benefited if Tampa didn't.

"It's the way the state does business," said Gibbs, the new building's namesake. "There are grants all over the place."

City Hall became a partner in a move that initially looked like a great deal for Tampa. Its 10-member traffic team had squeezed for years into 1,600 square feet on the first floor of Old City Hall.

"We were content to stay here," said Michael Scanlon, who leads the city's traffic center.

At the new building, the city enjoys a state-of-the art video wall and room to grow in about 4,000 square feet. But it's not saving as expected on rent. Initially, the city projected that the 20-year lease would yield a financial benefit of more than $626,000.

Instead, the city is hiring two traffic staffers, in part to take over the job of switching traffic flow on the Crosstown's elevated lanes. That brings the savings down to $15,000 over 20 years, according to a city analysis.

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In its grant application, the authority hoped other government agencies would use the building as well.

Instead, others went their own way.

The county government plans to build its own high-tech traffic center in Brandon for $8-million to $14-million. Public works director Bob Gordon said the county has different technology needs.

Plus, said Mike McCarthy, director of traffic services, county leaders thought the Expressway Authority's building downtown could flood during hurricanes.

The state Transportation Department is building a $5.7-million center in North Tampa to manage interstate traffic, too.

Tax watchdogs question the building boom.

"Expensive administrative headquarters does not add long-term value to the community," Calabro said. "Building safe, efficient and well-placed roads do."

Still, Expressway Authority leaders called the effort government cooperation at its best.

The second-floor traffic command center is customized for Tampa's traffic operators. The Florida Turnpike Enterprise is leasing office space there. And the Turnpike's staff will work alongside the city's.

For the moment, no police or fire personnel have moved into the building. Officials hope they will come one day or will link electronically to the building.

With revenue from leases, the Expressway Authority estimates it will earn about $150,000 annually.

It also said it will save by not paying rent at its old headquarters on Madison Street and by not hiring new staff members.

"That's money that we're going to be able to put back into transportation in Hillsborough," said Martin Stone, the planning director.

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