TAMPA — The state plans a major expansion of Interstate 75 through Hillsborough County, adding two express lanes in each direction between Manatee County and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in New Tampa at a cost exceeding $2.6 billion.
Hillsborough County officials, however, slammed the brakes on one potential aspect of the project Wednesday: Charging motorists to travel in the new lanes.
“The Interstate Highway 75 was built with public funds and has been free and should continue to be free for our working class, our students and our workers,” said commission chairperson Kimberly Overman. “Our public highways are meant to serve the public equitably.”
Overman’s comments, during a Transportation Planning Organization committee meeting Wednesday, followed a state Department of Transportation briefing on the highway expansion. As part of the presentation, the state said traffic on the lanes could be managed by tolls, vehicle type or limiting access points.
Overman and others suggested traffic volumes on the express lanes could be controlled by reserving them for high occupancy vehicles and mass transit during peak travel times.
“They really are Lexus lanes,” said Commissioner Pat Kemp, who said her family members in northern Virginia skip express lane travel because the tab can run up to $40 one-way for a 10-mile commute.
Though construction of the highway lanes could be more than a decade away — the project is in the county’s long-range transportation plan through 2045 — Commissioner Harry Cohen said the time to speak up is now. The project is in the development and environmental study stage in which preliminary cost estimates, right of way needs and environmental issues are addressed.
The Transportation Planning Organization position is key because the board has the ability to stop transportation projects by removing them from the locally approved long-range work program. The state needs the board’s blessing, via its listed project priorities, in order to spend federal dollars on highway projects.
On a 4-1 vote, the committee recommended the full Transportation Planning Organization — 14 elected and appointed officials — oppose the potential toll lanes. Only Charles Klug, representing the Tampa Port Authority, dissented, saying he didn’t know how excising the tolls could affect the state’s plans. Voting to recommend that the full board oppose tolls were Hillsborough commissioners Mariella Smith, Cohen, Kemp and Overman.
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A Department of Transportation representative said deciding how to manage the lanes would be based on future studies.
The debate recalled the state’s initial plan to turn an existing lane of the Howard Frankland Bridge, carrying Interstate 275 between Tampa and St. Petersburg, into a toll lane. Amid strong public uproar, including objections from influential state lawmakers, the Department of Transportation retreated from that plan in 2016 and instead said only two newly constructed express lanes would carry a toll. Construction is ongoing and that toll amount still has not been revealed.
The proposal to add new lanes to I-75 has been around for more than a decade. The state kicked off the planning in 2008 and the state held its first public hearing in 2010. The project, however, went on hiatus for six years during and after the Great Recession.
“We have to take a look at our funding every year and prioritize projects,” Kris Carson, regional spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, said about the yearslong interruption.
The state held a second hearing on the project in January in Riverview with many of the public comments, particularly from homeowners on Morris Bridge Road, focusing on the need for noise barriers.
The state plans call for adding two express lanes in each direction within the existing highway right of way along 41 miles of I-75 at a total cost of $2.64 billion.
The 23-mile southern segment from Moccasin Wallow Road in Manatee County to south of U.S. 301 carries an estimated price tag of $638 million and would include a new divergent diamond interchange at Gibsonton Drive. No businesses or homes would need to be acquired.
The northern leg, running from U.S. 301 to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, is more expensive to build because it includes work on eight interchanges, plus owners of 19 businesses and 17 homes would have to relocate. Its estimated price tag is more than $2 billion.
The project development study is expected to be concluded in the spring. There is no timetable yet for construction.