TAMPA — Go west, Tampa Bay commuters!
There may be no “golden spike” when the Selmon West Extension opens to the public this afternoon, but the newest route linking Tampa and Brandon with Pinellas County to the west is being hailed as a historic moment.
The extension will connect businesses, freight, and people in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, Vincent Cassidy, chairman of the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority board, said in an email to the Times. “It will help stimulate social and economic prosperity for local businesses and the entire region,” Cassidy said.
Construction on the $230 million project began in 2018 to create a 1.9 mile overland toll bridge connecting the south end of the Gandy Bridge to Brandon with no stoplight in between by linking the bridge to the reworked Lee Roy Selmon Expressway entrance ramp at Dale Mabry Highway.
The new connector, which runs through the median of Gandy Boulevard, gives drivers the option to take Gandy Boulevard to a local destination or stay on the Selmon Extension for a direct “pass-through” trip east to Hillsborough’s suburbs or west to the beaches of Pinellas County.
“Thanks to the ... extension our two areas are more connected than ever in one easy, reliable and fast trip,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said in a video uploaded to Twitter this week celebrating the project’s completion. “And let’s not overlook the positive impact this project is having on our local Gandy Boulevard merchants, not to mention the economic impact it brings to our entire region.”
The toll for a trip on the new extension is 95 cents with a SunPass or $1.31 with toll-by-plate billing.
The elevated toll lane’s construction was fully funded by toll revenues and bonds, not taxpayer dollars, according to the Expressway Authority. The agency owns and operates the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, Brandon Parkway, Meridian Avenue, and the Selmon Greenway used by 200,000 travelers daily.
The authority’s last major project was completed in 2006, when toll booths on the Selmon Expressway’s reversible express lanes were replaced with all-electronic toll cameras. When it opened, Tampa’s Selmon Expressway was the first in the world to feature “reversible, all-electronic, elevated express lanes,” the agency said.
Today’s launch of the Selmon West Extension will be yet another first for the agency. The extension’s design is the first of its kind to be built inside the United States, Joe Waggoner, executive director of the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, said in an email to the Times.
Distinctive fins crown the concrete pier columns that rise from the ground, providing architectural distinctiveness as well as stability to the bridge deck, Waggoner said. The fins enabled designers to use fewer of the columns than along the rest of the Selmon Expressway. And while elevated interstates in the U.S. tyically rise 15 feet off the ground, the West Extension soars to twice that height — making businesses along Gandy Boulevard more visible, the authority said.
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The Expressway Authority “challenged our design-build team to come up with an innovative and aesthetically pleasing design that would minimize the negative effects of construction on the businesses along the Gandy corridor,” Waggoner said.
The architectural changes to the extension’s design were made after local business owners along Gandy Boulevard voiced concerns that building a new interstate pass-through would block driveways and create a noisy eyesore.
During the project’s construction, the authority directed contractors not to impede driveways or traffic lanes at rush hour. And with help from local chambers of commerce, the authority also launched the “SHOP GANDY!” marketing campaign to help businesses find new customers before, during and after construction.
The last 72-ton concrete segment of the extension was installed in December, project Administrator Matthew Kappler with Cardno engineering told the Times. In the months that followed, construction crews have been painting, installing lighting and landscaping, reconstructing the Gandy Boulevard median and repaving bumpy Gandy and West Shore boulevards.
An invitation-only ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held this afternoon to officially open the Selmon West Extension to the public. During the ceremony, authority officials plan to present the city of Tampa with a $2 million check to help rebuild city parks on the north and south side of Gandy Boulevard that were used as staging areas during construction.