The Florida Department of Transportation reversed course Monday and abandoned a controversial plan to add a toll to an existing lane on the Howard Frankland Bridge when part of it is rebuilt in 2019.
The department also canceled two public hearings on the bridge replacement scheduled for this week.
In a letter from DOT Secretary Jim Boxold to State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the state announced it would keep all four of the bridge's lanes free for drivers.
A previous plan called for putting a toll on one of the lanes. Officials said it is considered an "auxiliary" lane that exists only to connect the on ramp in Pinellas County to the off ramp in Hillsborough, not to carry traffic across the bridge. By that reasoning, state officials said, the public was not actually losing a free lane on the main bridge connecting Tampa and St. Petersburg.
Monday, Boxold backed down from that position.
"From the perspective of the people we serve in the Tampa region," Boxold wrote, "the auxiliary lanes on this facility are currently travel lanes."
The Tampa Bay Times first reported the lost free lane in a story last month. More than a dozen elected officials told the Times they did not know that DOT's plan included reducing the number of free lanes.
State officials called the plan an "interim" step and that a wider bridge would be built sometime in the future. Both bridges were outlined in official documents dating back to 2013.
Emails obtained by the Times Monday show that top DOT officials have been involved in department's response to the controversy since it began. Hours after the Times asked about the lane conversion, DOT's Tampa district office was instructed to send its responses up to Tallahassee for review. Once the story was posted online, quoting angry local officials, Boxold replied to an internal email containing the article with a wry remark: "That went well."
The reversal comes the day before DOT was scheduled to hold the first of two public hearings on the proposed changes to the bridge. Instead, the department will re-evaluate its options for the bridge replacement.
"At a minimum, we will be replacing the bridge," said Debbie Hunt, the director of transportation development for the FDOT's district office in Tampa. "We will still be looking at express lanes. They have not gone away."
DOT officials said they do not know when the rescheduled public hearings will take place, but the goal is still to begin construction by 2019.
No matter what, the northbound span, which opened in 1960, needs to be replaced. Other alternatives include building the wider bridge, which would have space for toll lanes in both directions, that state documents had previously shown as a second step.
"I would like to thank the Department of Transportation for listening to the sentiment of the people of Tampa Bay who opposed having a toll lane on the Howard Frankland Bridge," said Latvala, who wrote a letter last week opposing the smaller bridge design. "Now we must move forward and focus on solutions."
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The bridge project is part of a larger $6 billion highway plan, called Tampa Bay Express or TBX, that will add almost 100 miles of toll lanes to interstates across the region.
TBX has been met by criticism since it was announced last year, in part for its impact on minority neighborhoods. Almost 80 percent of the registered voters living at homes the state intends to raze for the project are black and Latino, a Times analysis in June found.
Some critics of the project remain skeptical that the state will keep its word not to reduce free lanes on the bridge.
"We would like to see a copy of the official documentation that guarantees this will become policy in the Howard Frankland bridge replacement project – not just a press release," said Michelle Cookson, a member of the anti-TBX group Sunshine Citizens.