Federal officials are requiring more research on the impact of New Tampa's proposed East-West Road, which could postpone construction as much as two years.
Under the most optimistic of outlooks, this means the highway won't open before 2012.
That prolongs the years in which overloaded Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, carrying up to 60,000 vehicles a day, remains virtually the exclusive route between New Tampa and the rest of the city.
"Now there is a new time and money factor that has to be dealt with here," said Steve Daignault, the city administrator who plans to brief the Tampa City Council on the change today.
Daignault guessed that expanding two studies at the behest of the Federal Highway Administration will cost $1.5-million to $2-million.
The city has been planning the East-West Road for more than a decade as a way for commuters to zip around Tampa Palms and merge onto Interstate 275, avoiding the congestion of Bruce B. Downs and Bearss Avenue. Both roads are graded F by the county because they are overburdened by traffic.
But nobody has figured out how to pay for the $155-million expressway. Consequently, it has wandered among the drafting tables of the city, the state's turnpike agency and, most recently, the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority.
The eventual effect of the new federal requirements is uncertain because the project already was being delayed.
In February, the Expressway Authority chose the Plenary Group, part of a consortium of foreign companies, to build and operate the East-West Road as a toll road. But the authority balked at Plenary's proposed tolls, which would start at $1.50 for the 3-mile trip, then rise over the first five years to $2.75.
So a series of meetings ensued aimed at reducing the project's costs. Officials were considering narrower lanes and medians, which would require speed limits of 55 instead of 65, and ditches instead of gutters. Another idea: restructuring Plenary's lease, originally pegged at 40 years.
The East-West Road could be designed and built in two to three years once a feasible plan is forged, said Susan Chrzan, communications manager for the authority.
But now the studies must be revisited before design can begin, she said.
The news irked Joseph Caetano, the City Council member who was elected in March to represent North Tampa after blasting too much government study in his campaign.
"That's the way government works," he said. "Look at 40th Street (an ongoing road widening south of Temple Terrace) and how much they studied it. It's been studied for 25 years.
"Study, study, study. Studying keeps people working," he said.
Two studies, both required by state and federal officials, were deemed inadequate in the case of the East-West Road.
One examined the effect of adding a new half-interchange where the East-West Road would merge onto I-275 in southeast Lutz.
The other was a project development and environmental study, required of any road project that may be a candidate for federal funding.
The city finished both studies early this year, backed by significant state funding. But the studies were limited to the official length of the East-West Road, from I-275 on the west to Commerce Park Boulevard on the east.
The Federal Highway Administration concluded last month that the studies also should have encompassed a bridge the city plans to build over Interstate 75 at the eastern end of the East-West Road, plus the effect on New Tampa Boulevard, a two-lane residential artery that would bring the East-West Road the majority of its traffic.
"An issue would be: Does it have to be widened?" Daignault said.
Although the I-75 bridge is crucial to the East-West Road, city officials planned as far back as 2000 to build it separately. Without the expressway, the bridge would connect two quadrants of New Tampa and would allow easy access between a pair of public schools and neighborhoods they serve.
"We thought we would be able to build the bridge, and it might be five to 10 years from now before we would find ways to finance the East-West Road," Daignault said.
That seemed to change last year, when the Expressway Authority hatched an idea unprecedented in Florida: invite bids from private companies that would front the money to build the East-West Road, then operate it and recoup their costs in tolls.
Chrzan of the Expressway Authority said she wasn't sure whether the rounds of cost-shaving meetings would continue, given the new study requirements. But she wouldn't call the delay a setback for the road project.
"It's just another step in the process," she said.
Bill Coats can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 269-5309.