TAMPA — Traffic flowed freely northbound on the Howard Frankland Bridge Friday morning following the opening of new lanes near the West Shore interchange.
The Florida Department of Transportation spent $30 million to add lanes to the frustrating bottleneck that forced cars to merge and lead to traffic jams that could span the length of the 6-mile bridge.
The project finished ahead of schedule, as lanes opened in both directions over the last month. Around 9 a.m. Friday, cars flowed over the hump and under the exit signs with no brake tapping.
Orange traffic cones and trucks dotted the area as construction crews worked to finish the last few segments of the project. But the all-too-common red taillights were absent as cars drove north toward downtown Tampa in three continuous lanes, where previously they were forced to merge to two.
The southbound span saw a similar configuration, with three thru lanes at the start of the bridge. Fresh pavement marked the new addition, where traffic previously was forced to merge to two lanes after passing the exit for Tampa International Airport and State Road 60.
“We were able to accelerate this project and it was kind of a side effect of the pandemic, because traffic was a lot slower than normal,” said David Gwynn, the local transportation secretary for the state.
The next and last part of the project will be on the causeway coming off the bridge, extending a longer exit ramp lane to Exit 39 and creating a longer merge for drivers heading onto the flyover bridge for westbound S.R. 60 and the airport. Construction crews faced some weather-related delays, but officials are hoping the final part of the project will open after Labor Day.
Brian Fletcher, 30, of Pinellas Park said he thinks the new lanes could do wonders for traffic. He said concerns about traffic, especially on the bridge, have stopped him and his wife from going to Tampa plenty of times.
“There are lots of great restaurants in Tampa, but unless you hit it at the right time, it’s often not worth the trouble,” Fletcher said.
His worst — and most memorable — experience with the dreaded northbound backup was about six years ago when he was on his way to a Tampa Bay Lightning game with a friend. They were already crawling through traffic on the bridge when his friend remembered something: he had left the tickets at home. In Seminole.
“I think I went silent for the trip back,” Fletcher said. “And the subsequent trip back across the Howard Frankland.”
But others are concerned that while the new lanes might bring temporary relief, they’re only a short-term solution.
Josh Frank, an urban designer and advocate of eliminating raised highways in favor of a boulevard design, referenced the idea of induced demand.
“The traffic and congestion will always return,” Frank said. “The only cure for congestion is less cars.”
The new lanes were meant to be an interim project to tie the area over until a new, wider span of the bridge is built along with a redone West Shore interchange.
The $864 million bridge will be the largest contract in the history of the Tampa Bay department of transportation office.
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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.
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 is expected to begin this year, with hopes that the bridge would open in 2025.