Tampa’s Malfunction Junction fix could come sooner than expected

The $140 million modification to Interstate 275 and I-4 could be financed by $2 billion legislative appropriation.
Traffic backups like this one at  Interstate 275 and I-4  near downtown Tampa could be eased via a $140 million state construction project to add lanes and improve safety. [Times (2008)]
Traffic backups like this one at Interstate 275 and I-4 near downtown Tampa could be eased via a $140 million state construction project to add lanes and improve safety. [Times (2008)]
Published May 12, 2021|Updated May 12, 2021

TAMPA - The state Department of Transportation said $2 billion in extra funding from the Legislature could allow safety improvements to the downtown Tampa interchange of Interstate 275 and I-4 to begin next year.

Wednesday, the county’s Transportation Planning Organization agreed to earmark $2.55 million to buy six residences and a vacant lot to provide the required right of way for the work to proceed on the interchange known commonly as Malfunction Junction.

“Hopefully (we’ll) be able to bring this project to start next year or so,” said David Gwynn, state transportation secretary for the Tampa Bay district.

The $140 million project would alter the traffic-choked interchange by adding a second lane on the southbound flyover ramp connecting I-275 to I-4, reconfiguring the I-4 eastbound exit to Ybor City, and widening the I-275 entrance ramp for westbound traffic on I-4.

The project is not funded in the state’s current five-year work program and the county’s long-range transportation plan, adopted in 2019, showed the project’s right of way acquisition and construction occurring sometime between 2025 and the end of the decade.

But the Legislature-approved budget included extra transportation funding and Gwynn said districts across the state are now preparing their project lists to try to obtain a share of the windfall.

“We are trying to advance it potentially as soon as next year. We wanted to purchase the right of way so we can be prepared to begin as soon as money becomes available,” Gwynn said later in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

Traffic on southbound I-275 routinely backs up as vehicles begin stacking into a single lane toward the I-4 eastbound entrance. That access lane isn’t available until south of Martin Luther King Boulevard, causing a bottleneck and frequent zig-zagging lane changes among vehicles entering I-275 from Martin Luther King Boulevard and those trying to reach the I-4 entrance.

The improvements include adding a lane to the I-4 entrance and starting the access lane further north near Sligh Avenue.

The refurbished interchange is a toned-down version of an earlier, controversial plan that would have taken up to 340 homes to add express lanes on the interstates. Another discarded version would have taken between 30 and 100 homes.

“We came to a consensus that we needed to minimize the number of parcels we impacted, but that doing nothing really wasn’t an alternative either, because we can’t just allow the number of crashes to continue to increase,” said Gwynn.

The modifications are aimed at improving safety along the stretch of two highways where annual accidents doubled from approximately 500 to 1,000 over a six-year period ending in 2018. The work could reduce the interchange-related crashes on I-4 by 35 percent and by 20 percent on I-275, according to state projections.

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The project also includes $10 million worth of trail upgrades, plus enhanced lighting and landscaping in the vicinity of Palm Avenue, 15th and 22nd streets in the Ybor City area.

The proposal, however, drew some public opposition as Rick Fernandez, a member of the transportation board’s citizens advisory committee, and Chris Vela of Tampa both objected to investing in more highway lanes.

“It goes against everything you guys are trying to change,” said Vela, noting the economic inequities and racial discrimination from past highway projects.

The Transportation Planning Organization, formerly known as the Metropolitan Planning Organization, approved the right of way money by a 13-1 vote with Hillsborough School Board member Jessica Vaughn dissenting.