Claybra Selmon felt a familiar lump in her throat as she watched her daughter-in-law, children and grandchildren step off a chartered bus and onto the crest of the Selmon Expressway’s new two-mile extension on Monday.
One by one, she watched them crane their heads to see the downtown Tampa skyline in the distance, then walk to the concrete barriers lining the elevated toll lane and lean over as far as they dared to peak at the busy roadway below.
This September will mark 10 years since the expressway’s namesake — beloved local football legend Lee Roy Selmon — died at 56 after a sudden stroke, leaving behind Claybra, their three children and a legacy that still looms large over the city his family calls home.
“Of course it’s emotional, because I keep thinking of him and I keep wondering — you know, I always wonder — if he can see everything that’s going on down here, or at least all the good things,” Claybra Selmon said Monday as her family joined Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, members of the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority and other local dignitaries for the inaugural trip along the Selmon West Extension.
Monday’s grand opening was an effort nearly 25 years in the making, officials said — the final piece in an interconnected, overland toll bridge named after the Hall of Fame defensive end with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The expressway now connects the south end of the Gandy Bridge to the Brandon suburbs.
Even at mid-morning on a Monday, in traffic still diminished by the lingering coronavirus, the demand for the new alternative route was clear.
Driving the 14-mile-long Lee Roy Selmon Expressway from Westfield Brandon Mall to West Gandy Boulevard would take 14 minutes at 60 mph, midway between the speed limit range of 55 mph to 65 mph. It took six minutes just to drive the two miles through three stoplights from the new Gandy exit to the Gandy Boat Docks, where the authority held Monday’s grand opening ceremony.
“This fly-over road to Gandy Boulevard will be highly, highly effective at relieving a great deal of the congestion that Gandy Boulevard has struggled with for so many years,” Castor said. “The extension also provides a critical hurricane evacuation route between Tampa and Pinellas.”
In addition to the swag bags and donuts provided by businesses along the Gandy corridor, Castor left Monday’s ribbon-cutting with a $2 million check from the Expressway Authority to rebuild the parks around Gandy Boulevard that were used as staging areas during three years of construction on the $231 million project.
The money comes from expressway toll revenues and the $100 million in bonds they helped sell. The toll for a trip on the new extension is 95 cents with SunPass or $1.31 with toll-by-plate billing.
“To give you a sense of the magnitude of $230 million, we could have paid for one half of a space mission,” authority board chairman Vincent Cassidy said.
When the Crosstown Expressway was renamed for Lee Roy Selmon in 1999 and converted to electronic tolling, Selmon was serving as a spokesman for the Expressway Authority. He asked the authority to take his pay and set up a scholarship program, instead, for local kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math studies.
Driving across the extension Monday, Selmon’s grandchildren smiled at the fact sheet that spelled out how this bridge is the first of its kind in the U.S. and, at nearly 30 feet tall, twice as high as most elevated highways. One reason: Businesses along Gandy asked for it, so motorists can see them easier.
The project will keep the place Selmon loved a little safer, his widow said.
“He would just be so happy to see how this is going to benefit the community, and how every concern and question was really listened to and answered,” Claybra Selmon said. “I’m just so proud of him, and so proud of the authority for deciding to see this project through and continue on in his name.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story had the wrong calculation for the time it takes to drive the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.