An infusion of state money is pushing up the start date of Tampa Bay’s No. 1 priority transportation project designed to alleviate traffic in one of the region’s worst bottlenecks.
Speaking over the drone of cars zooming across Howard Frankland Bridge and flanked by workers in florescent construction gear, Gov. Ron DeSantis and other officials announced that the state is dedicating some of the $2 billion it budgeted for infrastructure toward the West Shore Interchange.
The original start date for the project was 2024, but it had tentatively been pushed back to fiscal year 2026 because of early budget projections from the coronavirus pandemic, which turned out to be more dire than reality.
On Monday, officials said work will now start in 2023, thanks to $560 million dedicated to the early phases of the project, with $1.2 billion in total expected for its entirety.
“West Shore is where regional economic employment and entertainment activities converge, but I think as most people in this area know, you can run into a bottleneck,” DeSantis said.
He said the changes will help almost 100,000 employees of local businesses, plus travelers coming through Tampa International Airport.
The expensive rebuild will add lanes to the interchange and bring toll lanes from the northern end of the Howard Frankland Bridge through downtown Tampa. It’s designed to smooth out the link between the bridge, the Courtney Campbell Causeway, the Veterans Expressway and the airport to reduce congestion.
The new timeline also means that work will be underway before the upgrades to the Howard Frankland Bridge are completed in about four years.
“We didn’t want to just have the bridge project end and have nothing at the end to accept the traffic,” said David Gwynn following the announcement. Gwynn is the Florida Department of Transportation Secretary for district seven, which encompasses the Tampa Bay region.
The funding for these projects is a combination of state and federal money, he said. Before Monday, Gwynn knew that the Legislature had set aside additional money for infrastructure projects, but he didn’t know which ones would be selected, he said.
All the local governments have placed the project atop their priority list, Gwynn added, creating rare unity that allowed Tampa Bay to “speak as a region.”
“I think they all realize the West Shore area is the largest business center in the southeast United States when you combine Gateway and West Shore together, and it’s continuing to grow,” he said. “The interchange is the same one built over 30 years ago and it just doesn’t allow for more growth.”
DeSantis also announced an accelerated timeline for work on the downtown Tampa interchange, where Interstate 275 and Interstate 4 meet. He described the area as a “key choke point.”
Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault said that 1,000 accidents a year happen at that interchange. The project is intended to make it safer by adding lanes and relocating the exit at 21st and 22nd street further west to reduce the number of lanes drivers have to weave through.
But that project wasn’t in the department’s five-year plan, which left its start date uncertain. Monday’s announcement that it would be getting a $150 million boost moved it to the top of the list. Work could begin as early as June 2022, according to Gwynn.
Also attending the news conference were Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, a reminder of the Tampa Bay region’s political clout in the Legislature and their sway over the state purse strings.
DeSantis said the projects will help modernize transportation in Tampa Bay, a region “exploding” with growth.
“Everywhere you look, there’s like a new community being built,” he said. “That’s great but that also requires us to have the type of infrastructure in place that’s going to be able to support that.”