TAMPA — For months, Tampa leaders have pushed Florida lawmakers to find money for a major local transportation plan before the clock runs out on this year’s $100 billion state budget.
With less than a week to go, no money has been set aside yet to keep the $1.4 billion West Shore Interchange project on schedule.
Still, there’s a reason for hope.
Money might be freed up if the House follows the Senate’s lead and repeals three divisive and costly toll road plans known as M-CORES. The move gives a glimmer of hope to advocates for the West Shore project and all the 77 projects in the state Department of Transportation’s five-year work plan that have been cut or delayed as the coronavirus pandemic ravages state revenues.
Senate Bill 100, introduced by Transportation Committee chair Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, would bust up the M-CORE funding, sending $132 million of it into the state’s transportation trust fund and $35 million to Florida’s Turnpike. It’s similar to a less popular bill filed by Rep. Ben Diamond, a Pinellas Democrat, but would still earmark money for projects outside the five-year work plan that Diamond sees as top priority.
“Florida cannot afford to spend more than $700 million to plan and design these dubious projects over the next five years — or the tens of billions they would cost to build,” Diamond said. “There are many more pressing needs for that money for transportation and other priorities in an era when state revenue is expected to be far short of earlier projections.”
The coronavirus has forced Floridians off the road for the better part of a year, cutting revenue from gas taxes, tolls, rental car fees and other funding sources and resulting in a state shortfall estimated at $3 billion over the next five years.
The West Shore Interchange in Tampa would absorb traffic from an expansion of the Howard Frankland Bridge. The bridge project was fast-tracked last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis but work on West Shore has been delayed two years until 2026.
The West Shore Interchange would be the largest state-funded project in the history of District 7, the state transportation district centered on the Tampa Bay region. Local lawmakers and many business leaders say it’s critical for relieving relieve congestion in one of the region’s worst traffic bottlenecks.
The project would more smoothly link the Howard Frankland Bridge, the Courtney Campbell Causeway, the Veterans Expressway and Tampa International through regular lanes and tolled express lanes.
“I believe delaying this project will create catastrophic gridlock for those driving to the airport, for those driving in from the Causeway, and over the Howard Frankland Bridge,” Sen. Janet Cruz said.
Announced in February, the delay drew immediate requests for reconsideration from Hillsborough’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Tampa Bay Area and the St. Petersburg Area chambers of commerce, the Tampa Bay Partnership, and the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council.
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Forty-five business leaders signed off on a letter from the Tampa Bay Partnership that declared “collective and unprecedented support” for the West Shore Interchange, calling it the region’s “most important transportation project.”
“With the delayed start, and the scheduled completion pushed back to 2030, the region will suffer from huge transportation delays and dangerous bottlenecks,” the letter said.
Among those who signed were Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld; Jeff Vinik, Tampa Bay Lightning owner and partner in the $3.5 billion Water Street Tampa downtown redevelopment; Blake Casper, whose company owns more than 50 McDonald’s restaurants around the Tampa Bay area; Darryl Shaw, co-founder of BluePearl Specialty & Emergency Pet Hospital and a major Ybor City-area property owner; and Ashley Furniture founder Ron Wanek.
Vinik and Shaw are part of FBN Partners, a group of local investors who have loaned $15 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation declined to comment on the West Shore project, saying that until the state budget is finalized it’s too early to tell which work will receive funding in the next fiscal year.
The Legislature also has yet to resolve how it will spend the roughly $10 billion in federal aid Florida received through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act stimulus plan. Lawmakers are still awaiting guidance on how they can spend it, said Jennifer Hrdlicka, staff director of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee.
The state budget must be finalized by April 27, giving lawmakers just under a week to resolve hot-button spending issues.