TAMPA — State transportation officials are prepared to delay billions of dollars worth of transportation projects after the economy was hit hard by COVID-19.
The most expensive, highest-profile project affected in Tampa Bay is a billion-dollar rebuild of the West Shore interchange. Tampa Bay officials celebrated last year when the state allocated $1.4 billion to add lanes to the interchange and bring toll lanes from the northern end of the Howard Frankland Bridge through downtown Tampa.
The nexus — which connects the bridge, Interstate 275, Tampa International Airport and the Veterans Expressway — is a hub of the region and has historically been one of the area’s worst bottlenecks. About 150,000 vehicles move through the interchange each day, according to traffic counts from Hillsborough’s transportation planning agency provided last year.
But that project, which was set to start construction in 2023, now might not be completed until 2030.
The proposed cuts came after the state’s revenue estimating conference projected sharp decreases in funding. Coronavirus depleted traditional transportation funding sources, such as gas tax, car rental surcharges and toll revenue.
Local Florida Department of Transportation Secretary David Gwynn said the department likely needs to postpone about $1.5 billion worth of projects statewide over the next five years. Other districts in the state are also facing cuts.
All proposals are still in draft form, Gwynn said. The legislature and governor would need to sign off on any final changes next year.
Pushing most of the West Shore work outside of those five years accounted for much of Tampa Bay’s cuts, but other projects are also affected. Other proposed delays include plans to bring toll lanes south to St. Petersburg; expansion of the main terminal at Tampa International Airport; additional lighting along Nebraska Avenue, Fowler Avenue, U.S. 41 and other roads; and adding turn lanes at various intersections in Hillsborough County and flyovers and overpasses in Pinellas County.
Transportation planning in Florida focuses on the next five years at a time. Having a project listed in the five-year work plan offers reassurance that the project will happen and the money is there to pay for it. Once something gets bumped beyond that timeline, uncertainty arises.
The two-year delay of the interchange places the beginning of the West Shore rebuild in fiscal year 2026, the last year of the current five-year program.
“Although everybody is disappointed that it is going to be moved out two years, the fact that we still have it in the work plan as a commitment, I’m happy about that,” Gwynn said. “It didn’t get completely pushed out.”
But Tampa Bay Partnership chief executive Rick Homans said such a delay is “very damaging” for the region.
“I think for all of us it’s demoralizing and it’s discouraging to see this,” Homans said. “This is just a punch to the gut and sets us back when we’re finally beginning to make some progress.”
But there’s some hope, Homans said. He and others in the business community are optimistic that the legislature might provide some relief, especially with Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls hailing from Tampa Bay.
Other projects did escape the proposed cuts, including a nearly $900 million new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge. Construction is underway, with the eight-lane structure expected to open in 2024.
Six lanes of that bridge will carry traffic northbound, though two will require drivers pay a toll. Any delay of the West Shore interchange and additional toll lanes north to Tampa means a longer time where drivers will have to navigate six lanes of traffic dropping to three. The change is bound to snarl traffic and frustrate commuters.
“It will lead to a real bottleneck at that location that everyone already complains about today,” said Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county’s transportation planning group. “Here we are, about to be back at even worse situation in 2025. It’s just going to be even more traffic getting a still narrow space.”
Blanton was also disappointed to see that plans for I-275 south to downtown St. Petersburg and beyond were delayed to 2031, long beyond the five-year work plan and the certainty that comes with it.
“We have a lot hanging on that,” Blanton said. “That’s been probably a decade of putting that as a priority here in Pinellas County.”
In addition to addressing some safety concerns, the project would bring toll lanes from St. Pete that would connect with the rest of the region. Without those, and the others delayed in Tampa, it becomes much more difficult to run a regional bus rapid transit system that some transit officials had been pushing for in recent years.
The 40-mile project would run express buses in toll lanes for much of the route, providing people with a more reliable transit option throughout Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
“This throws that out the window, as well,” Homans said of the budget cuts. “It delays everything.”