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Meeting lets public weigh in on Tampa Bay Next

Westshore Plaza General Manager Jay Botsch (center) asks Bill Jones (left) of the Florida Department of Transportation questions about the state's plans for Interstate 275 near the Westshore interchange at a public workshop Monday at the Tampa Marriott Westshore. About 150 people attended the workshop. [Caitlin Johnston | Times]
Westshore Plaza General Manager Jay Botsch (center) asks Bill Jones (left) of the Florida Department of Transportation questions about the state's plans for Interstate 275 near the Westshore interchange at a public workshop Monday at the Tampa Marriott Westshore. About 150 people attended the workshop. [Caitlin Johnston | Times]
Published Oct. 9, 2017

TAMPA — The state's revamped proposal to expand interstates in Hillsborough County got one of its first public vettings on Monday.

Earlier this year, the Florida Department of Transportation reopened a federal study looking at the state's vision to add express toll lanes along Interstates 275 and 4. The move came after the department's previous plan for the area, known as Tampa Bay Express, faced significant community backlash. The DOT later scrapped the plan and replaced it with a new initiative, Tampa Bay Next.

Monday's workshop at the Tampa Marriott Westshore drew about 150 people. It was a chance for them to learn more about the highway expansion and to weigh in on options the department is considering, such as additional lanes at the West Shore Boulevard interchange and toll lanes along Tampa Bay's interstates. A similar workshop will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. tonight at the Tampa Hilton Downtwon.

"We put a lot of options out there to let people know what we're planning and hear what their thoughts are," DOT local secretary David Gwynn said.

Attendees were greeted by a four-minute video explaining the federal study and the area it covers: from the Tampa side of the Howard Frankland Bridge, east along I-275, then north to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; and I-4 east from downtown Tampa toward 50th Street.

"Together, we're taking a fresh look at a longstanding plan to improve and modernize Tampa's interstate system," the voice on the video said.

The original plan for Tampa Bay's express lanes came from a 1996 study. The federal study, as part Tampa Bay Next, aims to update that 20-year-old document so it more closely matches the desires of the community. Tampa residents, especially those in historic neighborhoods downtown, spent the past two years protesting the express toll lanes.

The DOT will hold another public workshop in 2018 before the final public hearing in 2019. That gives community members, business leaders and politicians about a year and a half to weigh in.

It will take another several years for any of those projects to be approved, so the DOT is moving forward with a couple interim plans to ease congestion in the meantime.

One of those is a $2.9 million plan to add a fifth southbound lane to the Veterans Expressway from State Road 60 to just south of the airport. That extra lane should help with the messy, and sometimes dangerous, merging and weaving that happens in that stretch, DOT consultant Brad Flom said. Construction will begin next fall, with the lane opening in the first half of 2019.

Another interim project is a $25 million plan to add an extra lane to I-275 in each direction near the West Shore Boulevard interchange. That area is known for nightmarish backlogs where the four lanes in each direction on the Howard Frankland Bridge narrow to two. Construction on that third lane will start in 2019.

Monday's meeting featured seven different stations, which included maps of the proposed toll lanes, depictions of the redesigned interchanges and a timeline of the process.

"I think FDOT is presenting more options than they have in the past," said Ann Kulig, executive director of the Westshore Alliance.

WestShore Plaza General Manager Jay Botsch pored over maps of the I-275 portion between the Howard Frankland and the mall. He's hoping the DOT's plans allow for improvements to the Occident Street, Trask Street and other north-south corridors near the mall.

"I think there's clarity and consistency to their message, and that's important," Botsch said. "They're taking the steps to let people know they're ready to listen and adopt people's ideas."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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