ST. PETERSBURG — Driving through Pinellas County’s busy Gateway Area lately, it’s nearly impossible to avoid detour signs, bright orange cones and heavy machinery dotting the roadways.
Some of the county’s highest trafficked roads are undergoing reconstruction of a dramatic magnitude. The work stretches from the Bayside Bridge and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport to the Howard Frankland Bridge and down toward St. Petersburg. It consumes many of the area’s most popular corridors, including Interstate 275, U.S. 19 and 118th Avenue.
It’s all part of the state’s greater vision to add nearly 100 miles of toll lanes to the area’s interstates through the next decade and beyond. Pinellas County is the launching ground for the first wave of these projects, meant to make room for the nearly 100,000 people expected to move here in the next 25 years.
Construction on the first toll facility — the Gateway Express, which will build two elevated toll roads — started in 2018. Now construction of a new Howard Frankland Bridge span is also underway, which includes the removal of the 4th Street exit on southbound I-275 and other work along that span of highway.
The work surrounding the two projects, which combined total nearly $1.5 billion, continues to catch the eye of drivers — many of whom don’t understand the greater scheme to add tolls throughout the region.
Even those who know tolls are coming say it’s hard to make sense of the plans. At times, it looks like they’re building a road to nowhere, St. Petersburg resident Mary Charlotte said.
“It’s so confusing,” Charlotte, 33, said. “There just seems to be random pillars all over the place.”
Local Florida Department of Transportation Secretary David Gwynn said all of the work is part of a plan to help prepare Tampa Bay for the unprecedented growth it’s expected to see.
“When you’re looking at the amount of future traffic that’s predicted on our roads, it’s just huge,” Gwynn said. “We’re already behind. Trying to catch up is hard.
“When this is done, we’re going to have a transportation infrastructure there that’s going to serve us well for many years.”
Construction of the Gateway Expressway gives Tampa Bay its first glimpse of Tampa Bay Next.
Formerly known as Tampa Bay Express, the multi-billion-dollar program is the state’s vision for the region’s interstates. Originally, all facets — including toll lanes on Interstates 275, 75 and 4 and rebuilds of the West Shore interchange and Howard Frankland Bridge — were linked as one package. In order to get one job done, local politicians had to approve all of it.
That changed in 2017 after public outcry caused the Florida Department of Transportation to scrap some of its plans. Tampa Bay Next was born. The reboot includes most of the same segments, but allows some to move forward while others are still in contention.
The heart of that opposition was grounded in Hillsborough, where citizen groups mounted a campaign against expanding the interstate, especially with toll lanes. But similar pushback has not been found in Pinellas.
“I’ve been here for a little more than five years and heard almost no complaints about these being toll roads,” said Whit Blanton, executive director of the county’s transportation planning organization, Forward Pinellas.
“I think people realize that we need to get a handle on moving traffic. If that’s the way we have to do it, so be it.”
Both four-lane, elevated roads under construction as part of the Gateway Expressway will be tolled. The cost is expected to be between 75 and 80 cents per trip, said Richard Moss, director of development for the local department of transportation office. The final rate will be set at a public hearing later this year.
When the work is done, there will be about 30 new structures built in the area, ranging from 200-foot long bridges to large flyovers connecting to the new elevated highways. But drivers shouldn’t plan on using the new roads until early 2023. So far, about 60 percent of the work is done.
At the northern end of the project, the new State Road 686A will connect the Bayside Bridge to just west of I-275. Further south, the new State Road 689 will be constructed from U.S. 19 to west of I-275. It will generally be located in the median of existing 118th Avenue North, and includes flyover bridges connecting to mainline US-19. It will be elevated over portions of 118th Avenue N, as well as 49th, 47th, 34th, and 28th streets north.
The new Howard Frankland Bridge will also have a toll option. In addition to the four general traffic lanes that exist now, two lanes in each direction will be managed lanes, which will require the driver to pay to use them.
Unlike the elevated toll roads, the cost to use these lanes changes based on demand. The worse the traffic, the higher the toll.
Transportation officials didn’t have an answer recently for how much the tolls would cost, but previous estimates from the state said the toll would automatically fluctuate between 15 cents and $2 a mile as traffic gets better or worse. That means it could cost more than $10 to drive between 4th Street and the West Shore interchange on a busy day.
But Gwynn said the vision for the managed lanes could evolve over time, and maybe not include the same dynamic toll pricing. The lanes would also be available to buses, carpools and even self-driving vehicles, whenever that technology arrives.
“Everyone should see a benefit,” Gwynn said, even with tolls in place. “What we found when we constructed managed toll lanes, we also see improvement in general purpose lanes. That’s largely in part because we’re taking traffic out of those general purpose lanes.”
Overall, Gwynn said all the construction that’s happening now should reduce travel times and make the roads safer. Several of the future projects include taking bends out of the roads and extending lanes, which eliminates dangerous merging.
“I think the biggest benefit we’ll see is what this is going to do for highway safety,” Gwynn said. “We have a lot of crashes related to merges and weaves.”
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said she’s excited to see any changes that help people move around in a more timely manner. She said she particularly appreciates how these local projects are tied to a more regional vision.
“We’re moving the dial to build a system that we’ve never really focused on before that connects the region,” Long said.