ST. PETERSBURG — The neighbors came together, filling the rows of folding chairs and waiting their turn to ask officials to spare their homes.
Many moved to the Meadowlawn Sawgrass neighborhood around the same time when the subdivision was built just south of Gandy Boulevard years ago. Now, the state wants to take some of that land to make way for an expanded highway and retention ponds.
“We just want to protect our neighborhood,” said Manuel Rodriguez, who described a tight-knit community that hosts events and whose families grew up together.
Officials told a room of about 130 people Tuesday night at First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg that they plan to build two toll lanes in each direction of Interstate 275 between the Howard Frankland Bridge and Interstate 375. To do so, they need to take 16 homes along the 16-mile stretch. Four of those are in the Meadowlawn Sawgrass community.
It’s all part of the state’s vision to expand Interstates 275, 75 and 4 in hopes of combating growing congestion. Officials say dynamic toll lanes — ones whose cost changes based on traffic and demand — are the answer.
The conversation Tuesday was similar to one that has raged in Tampa’s urban neighborhoods since 2015, when transportation officials first started talking about taking homes in order to widen the highway with tolled lanes.
But there’s a striking difference: when asked, many of the nearby home owners said they would use the toll lanes once they open.
“I think there’s a need for it,” homeowner Kevin Wence said. “I’m not faulting the changes to the interstate. I’m faulting the fact that there’s alternatives without affecting homes and costing the taxpayers.”
His neighbor, Monica Ponton, owns property where her home and three others are slated to be replaced by a retention pond. Monica, 71, and her husband Wilfred Ponton, 73, thought this would be the last house they’d ever buy when they moved in 20 years ago.
“It’s a little late to start over again,” Wilfred Ponton said. “We bought this with the idea that we’d be there forever.”
But Monica Ponton said she’s glad to see the state wants to add lanes instead of placing tolls on existing roadway
“Unfortunately, to my own detriment, it makes sense,” she said.
Some did speak out against the toll lanes. Toby Vongkoth of Seminole questioned why the state couldn’t invest in transit instead. Mark Ballenger of St. Petersburg asked officials to stop calling the project express lanes, arguing that it was misleading not to say tolls.
“We don’t need these toll lanes,” John Estock of Safety Harbor said. “We do need one additional lane south of Gandy to north of 375, but it doesn’t need to be a toll lane.”
But a majority of the comments, in addition to 20 emails the department received, focused on looking at alternative locations for retention ponds and asked the state to build more noise barriers to help combat the sound that will come with additional lanes.
Speakers Tuesday asked the state to consider moving the retention pond planned for Meadowlawn Sawgrass to a nearby school board site or Sawgrass Lake Park.
“I really believe it is crucial we consider all these other options before we decide to take houses away from people,” said Donald Wiederecht, who has lived there for 23 years.
Officials haven’t finalized pond locations and are unlikely to start buying right of way until 2022. Construction is scheduled to begin in fiscal year 2024 and could take about four years, spokeswoman Kris Carson said.
The new Howard Frankland Bridge, which includes toll lanes, is set to open by then.
Lee Brock, who lives near the 38th Avenue N exit for I-275, said he was initially concerned that the proposed toll lanes in St. Petersburg would create a backlog once traffic hit the Howard Frankland or the West Shore interchange. He said hearing the state’s plans for the bridge and West Shore area reassured him as a commuter who regularly drives to Tampa.
“I personally think it’s a great thing,” Brock said. “I would leave almost an hour early to get to work safely, so yes, I would use the express lanes.”
The third part of the project includes straightening lanes and reducing merge points from I-375 down to 54th Avenue S. There are no toll lanes planned for this section.
Construction on toll lanes in the Gateway area is already underway, with those lanes set to open in 2022. The state’s plan to add a second toll lane along I-275 between Gandy Blvd and the Howard Frankland, in addition to the one planned as part of the Gateway changes, is not yet funded.
People can share their input with the district office on the project website through Oct. 4. The district will then make its recommendations to the state.
Meanwhile, officials are still determining what to do with the interstate in Tampa. Original proposals called for taking nearly 400 parcels of land to make way for toll lanes. That number has since dropped to 200 at the most, with a fifth alternative potentially taking less than 10.
Opponents in Tampa continue to speak out against additional highway capacity, especially if those lanes are tolled.