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Gov. DeSantis tells officials to speed up new Howard Frankland Bridge construction

The governor announced this week that he wants the state to advance $2.1 billion of transportation projects.

TAMPA — That new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge that officials have been discussing for years could come just a little bit sooner after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced this week he wants the state to advance $2.1 billion of transportation projects.

The Florida Department of Transportation is hoping to capitalize on lower traffic during the statewide coronavirus stay-at-home order and accelerate some long-term projects throughout the state, such as road expansions, bridges and new interchanges.

The $864 million Howard Frankland Bridge is the most expensive project on DeSantis’ list.

The governor’s announcement means Tampa Bay residents could see more road construction projects ramping up when they venture out of their house for groceries and doctors’ appointments.

“One of the things that struck me just going around the state the last few weeks is the traffic,” DeSantis said. “There’s not cars on the roads like there normally is. You look at some of the most busy thoroughfares and sometimes it’s a trickle.”

DeSantis listed half a dozen projects, including Tampa Bay’s most traveled (and cursed at) bridge, that he hoped could “lessen the economic damage” and give people more economic opportunity during the 30-day state shutdown.

For years, local transportation officials have been preparing to build a new span of the Howard Frankland, at times having to scrap plans entirely due to widespread community pushback.

Related: How the plan to fix Tampa Bay's most important bridge fell apart, told in Legos.

The current plan involves building an eight-lane bridge, complete with a bike and pedestrian trail, to replace the northbound span of the Howard Frankland, which is nearing the end of its lifespan.

Construction was expected to begin later this year, with hopes that the bridge would open in 2025. The new bridge will be the largest contract in the history of the Tampa Bay department of transportation office.

Because the project is still in early stages, people won’t see much change in the next few weeks as they drive over the hump and cross the bay. But the announcement allows contractors to start collecting information for the design earlier than planned and to expedite reviews and approvals, district spokeswoman Kris Carson said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

“Overall, this will hopefully advance the start of the heavy construction by several months,” Carson said.

DeSantis included other big-ticket projects around the state in his announcement, including the Sand Lake Road and International Drive extension in the Orlando tourism district.

“We have roads that if you were going to do a lot of construction on would cause massive traffic in normal situations,” DeSantis said. “That may not be the case now. ... You can close down more lanes because traffic isn’t what it was and you can really start to make progress on some of these key projects."

The state is hopeful that the new timelines will require more workers and allow for some expanded job offerings.

“The department has heard that many contractors are looking to hire and potentially attract laid off workers into the construction industry,” Carson said.

Once built, the new Howard Frankland span will have four lanes of traffic going south, to St. Petersburg. The massive structure will also have four express toll lanes, with two lanes traveling in each direction. Only drivers who pay a toll, which will fluctuate based on demand, can use those lanes.

Those toll lanes will also be available to buses and even self-driving vehicles, whenever that technology arrives in the future. And two of those toll lanes could also be converted for use by a light rail system.

Related: New Howard Frankland plan: 8-lane bridge with bike path

Officials believe bridge construction will not adversely impact traffic, as both existing spans will remain open while the new segment is built.

Once the new bridge is constructed, traffic patterns will flip. The current southbound span, built in 1990, will become the northbound span, carrying traffic to Tampa. The brand new bridge will move traffic southbound into St. Petersburg.

Workers will then demolish the existing northbound span, which was built in 1960.

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