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No solution in sight for gridlock on Gandy

Traffic creeps in evening rush hour on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa.
Published Mar. 7, 2015

TAMPA — The mile-long stretch of Gandy Boulevard between the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway and the bridge has been a commuting nightmare for years, raising the question: When is it going to be fixed?

The answer: No time soon.

Proposals to solve the problem have been tossed around for years, the most recent a 2010 plan for an elevated expressway 30 feet above the road. The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority did studies and drew plans that included paying for the road with expected toll revenue, said Joe Waggoner, the authority's executive director. But it never worked out.

"There just wasn't the (momentum) to take the next step," Waggoner said.

Gandy is a state road, which means the Florida Department of Transportation controls it. An average of 34,000 cars travel on it each day, said Kristen Carson, the department's spokeswoman. And during peak times, traffic swells by about 1,500 cars per hour.

It's a vital link between Pinellas and Hillsborough, and it's the only major part of Tampa Bay's extensive hurricane evacuation route that is not a limited-access highway.

Across the bay, construction to improve the flow of Gandy Boulevard traffic is under way. The $83 million Pinellas plan to build an elevated road should be done in about two years and will run east of Interstate 275 to east of Fourth Street.

But Tampa's Gandy corridor remains sluggish. Without incident, it takes about 30 minutes to get from the Selmon Expressway to the other side of the bay or vice versa each morning and afternoon.

Jean Duncan, who heads Tampa's transportation department, said the elevated expressway idea could be revisited.

"It's not like it's being completely ignored," she said. "It's just this type of project is quite a major undertaking."

In the meantime, Duncan said she's doing what she can. The city doesn't have jurisdiction of the road, but it can manage the flow of traffic, she said. That's why the lights at three intersections — Lois, Manhattan and West Shore — were retimed last summer in cooperation with the FDOT.

Those lights now run the longest programmable light cycle — four minutes, 14 seconds — during peak times, Duncan said.

To compare, lights on most of Dale Mabry run at only three minutes, 20 seconds during rush hour, Carson said. The Dale Mabry light on Gandy runs for three minutes, 10 seconds at that time.

The city also plans to add dual left-turn lanes from each direction at the West Shore intersection, Duncan said. Construction will start in 2020.

"We recognize that that intersection is critical," she said. "We're trying to do what we can with what our role is and the money that we have."

Though the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization reported that 54 percent of the community supported the elevated expressway project in a poll, Waggoner said it didn't seem like most residents did — another reason the project never got off the ground.

Alan Steenson, president of the Gandy Civic Association, agreed.

"There's people in the community that support this concept, but the majority are probably still against it," Steenson said, including himself.

Steenson, 80, worked in construction for about 30 years. He admitted the traffic is bad, even more so in the past few years. But he still doesn't like the expressway idea.

"Let's put it this way: They tried," he said. "They tried very hard. And in my point of view, they're going to keep at it. But I suspect most people would be opposed to a 30-foot-high structure down the middle of their street."

Lisa Silva, a principal planner with the organization that conducted the community poll, said politicians, traffic officials and residents perceived more resistance than there actually was.

"If you just go to a public meeting, you mostly get the opposition that shows up," she said.

Duncan pointed to construction fatigue as a possible reason for pushing the expressway plans aside.

The buzz about the plan happened around 2010, right after the FDOT completed its two-year project to install medians and designated U-turns on Gandy.

"It could've been like, 'Enough already, we just got through with this construction, we don't want to hear any more,' " Duncan said.

That median project hurt area businesses, said Robert Lawrence, co-owner of Depth Perception Dive Center, located on Gandy near the Selmon Expressway.

"A lot of businesses went out of business simply because the construction was drawn out so long," Lawrence said, like an auto parts store that used to operate near him. "We could survive an elevated expressway. What we can't survive is people not being able to come into our business (because of the construction)."

Though the expressway authority still has the plans for an elevated throughway and considers the project a future possibility, it won't happen any time soon, said Sue Chrzan, the authority's communications director.

Even if it's identified as a priority in the authority's strategic plan, which will be published this summer, studies would need to be updated and construction would not begin for years.

"It's not on the horizon," she said.

Residents like Jake Hollings­worth, who lives in an apartment off West Shore and Gandy, said he didn't mind the project. But executing it would be another issue.

"Yeah, it'd probably help," he said while walking his 3-year-old black Lab-French bulldog mix, Jeff. "It's just going to be a lot more noise for two, three years."

Hollings­worth, 30, said he hopes it gets better but plans on moving to St. Petersburg anyway.

"Honestly, I hate living here because of the traffic and the noise," he said. "It's just Gandy, you know?"

Contact Rachel Crosby at rcrosby@tamapabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @rachelacrosby.

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