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State picks new plan for Malfunction Junction: more lanes, no tolls

The proposal would take seven properties from adjacent neighborhoods and cost about $175 million.

TAMPA — The Florida Department of Transportation has chosen a plan for Tampa’s problem-plagued downtown interchange that requires far less land than the state’s previous pitches.

District Secretary David Gwynn told the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization Tuesday that this preferred alternative isn’t perfect, but offers a balance, addressing traffic and safety concerns while minimizing the impact on neighbors.

“After two and a half years, we came up with something that basically is within our right-of-way that’s going to help safety, is going to help operations pretty significantly, but it’s not going to impact the neighborhoods like we’ve shown before,” Gwynn said. “We’re trying to work within our right-of-way as much as we can.”

The plan, which will add lanes and reduce merge points in the area known as Malfunction Junction, first surfaced in May.

RELATED STORY: A fix for I-275′s bottleneck pits planners against neighbors

Transportation officials, who have been studying a rebuild of the interchange for years, previously focused on four options that would take anywhere from 40 to 200 parcels. Then the state developed a fifth plan this year that would take seven parcels, and it quickly gained favor within the agency.

The plan would cost about $175 million and be built in stages over the next five or so years as money becomes available, spokeswoman Kris Carson said. It consists of three main parts:

  • Expanding the flyover ramp connecting southbound Interstate 275 to Interstate 4 from one lane to two, and building a new off-ramp for eastbound I-4 at 14th and 15th streets, allowing easier access to Ybor City.
  • Adding a lane from westbound I-4 to I-275 north, and widening the northbound I-275 exit to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to two lanes.
  • Widening the ramp from westbound I-4 to I-275 south to three lanes and moving the downtown exit further south to spread out exit points.

See a video of the plan here.

Gwynn said he’d really like the expansion of the southbound I-275 ramp to I-4 to two lanes to be done first.

“One, it requires no right of way,” Gwynn said. “Second of all, it’s probably the biggest benefit for safety and operations. That’s probably the biggest improvement.”

A public hearing will take place in February and then the state will submit the project to Federal Highway Administration for approval.

Previous plans for the interchange involved adding toll lanes that would change in cost based on traffic and demand. These toll lanes, initially proposed as a multi-billion dollar plan known as Tampa Bay Express, are still planned for Pinellas County, the Howard Frankland Bridge, a rebuilt West Shore interchange and I-275 west of downtown Tampa.

RELATED STORY: No toll lanes north of downtown Tampa in three of four interstate proposals

The state quashed Tampa Bay Express in 2016 after public outcry both from urban neighborhoods in the footprint of the Tampa interchange and others concerned about plans to put a toll on one of the Howard Frankland’s existing free lanes.

Money that was scheduled to pay for those projects was moved elsewhere in the state while locals took time to revise projects and look at alternatives with more public support.

Some of those changes include building a new span of the Howard Frankland that includes four free lanes and two toll lanes in each direction. Construction is expected to begin next year, with the department projecting a completion date of 2024.

The revised option for the downtown interchange that Gwynn announced Tuesday was a sharp change from the Tampa Bay Express days. Documents from 2016 showed that plan would involve taking nearly 400 parcels with homes, businesses and vacant land. The department’s new approach mostly exists on land the state already owns.

“It’s not the fix-all, but we heard that’s not what the community wanted,” Gwynn said.

The state has decided to end all express lanes on I-275 near Ashley Drive in Tampa. Drivers who enter the interstate at Himes Avenue will be able to take the toll lanes west, but not east.

Gwynn told Hillsborough leaders that the state has also decided not to close the Floribraska Avenue ramp on I-275.

In addition, the department hoping to secure money in the near future to rebuild the West Shore interchange, home to one of the area’s most frustrating traffic snarls. The project would cost $1.24 billion if built today and take about five years to complete.

“I’ve got my fingers crossed, but I really think we’re gaining momentum and our project could be funded,” Gwynn said. “My hope is that we could have it started well before the Howard Frankland would end (in 2024), but that’s going to take some work.”

Until then, the state is in the process of adding additional lanes near the Kennedy Boulevard exit for Interstate 275 that should open by the end of 2020.