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Hillsborough transportation planners: State work plan will prolong gridlock

The tentative five-year project list, including delays to rebuilding the West Shore-I-275 interchange, draws criticism.
The I-275 interchange near Westshore Plaza. The state Department of Transportation's tentative work plan calls for a two-year delay in the construction of an expected $1.4 billion project to revamp the I-275 interchange at West Shore..
The I-275 interchange near Westshore Plaza. The state Department of Transportation's tentative work plan calls for a two-year delay in the construction of an expected $1.4 billion project to revamp the I-275 interchange at West Shore.. [ LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Times ]
Published Feb. 10

TAMPA — The state Department of Transportation’s pandemic-hampered work program will leave two key commuter routes gridlocked, a pair of Hillsborough County commissioners said Wednesday.

Sitting as members of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, Commissioners Harry Cohen and Pat Kemp said they were disappointed the tentative five-year work list delayed what they considered essential projects.

Cohen objected to pushing back the start of the $1.4 billion rebuild of the Interstate 275 interchange at West Shore Boulevard by two years to 2026, particularly in light of the ongoing expansion of the Howard Frankland Bridge just to the south.

“People are bottlenecked every day coming from Pinellas County into Hillsborough,” said Cohen. “It compromises people getting to and from the airport and from our major business centers. It’s very, very important when the new span is built it does not terminate into a gridlocked parking lot, that it actually comes into a functioning road network.”

Related: Coronavirus delays Tampa Bay road projects

Kemp criticized moving a project — separating an at-grade CSX rail crossing from U.S. 41 in Riverview — completely out of the five-year work list. Freight trains moving in and out of Port Tampa Bay often delay vehicle traffic at the location.

“I think it is very critical to our transportation network coming from south county. People are held up for 15 minutes, 20 minutes at a time,” Kemp said. “It’s a terrible thing that will not be moving forward for transit as well as for our car traffic and commuter traffic from that area.”

The proposed delays come as the state wrestles with declining gasoline taxes, lost rental car fees, toll collections and other revenues sources as more people work from home and delayed travel plans because of the coronavirus pandemic. The state’s tentative work program, first revealed late last year, still must be scrutinized by the governor and Legislature. It becomes effective July 1, but is updated annually. Wednesday was the first time the Metropolitan Planning Organization had critiqued the project list publicly.

Cohen’s comments mirrored sentiments Tuesday in Tallahassee, when transportation officials briefed the Senate Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee. The state cut or delayed 77 road projects from a five-year plan to try to make up a $763 million shortfall.

Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, expressed concern about delaying the West Shore interchange. Hooper said he anticipates hearing a lot of “anger” in pushing back the interchange work while the Howard Frankland Bridge construction advances.

The West Shore interchange connects the bridge, Interstate 275, Tampa International Airport and the Veterans Expressway. Historically, it has been one of the area’s worst bottlenecks, and about 150,000 vehicles move through the interchange each day, according to traffic counts from Hillsborough’s transportation planning agency.

Stacy Miller, assistant secretary for finance and administration at the Department of Transportation, told senators the department was trying to find ways to accelerate the interchange work in future years.

Gov. Ron DeSantis last spring pushed transportation officials to take advantage of reduced traffic during the pandemic to speed up road and bridge projects. The Howard Frankland Bridge was among the projects DeSantis directed the Department of Transportation to accelerate. The $900 million project is expected to be completed in 2024.

Wednesday, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a federally mandated local transportation policy board, voted 14-0 to send a letter asking the state to restore funding to the projects, cited by Kemp and Cohen, as soon as possible.

That objective may face its own obstacles. In addition to the current-year impacts, the state transportation agency faces a $2.91 billion reduction in revenue over the next five years, according to August projections presented Tuesday to the Senate panel.

Florida News Service contributed to this report.