TAMPA — Decades in the making, a $192 million project to build elevated lanes over Gandy Boulevard in Tampa took a key step forward Monday.
The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority approved paying up to $2.6 million to the engineering firm of Parsons Brinckerhoff to prepare conceptual and road plans for the project.
"It's a significant investment," authority executive director Joseph Waggoner said after the unanimous vote.
The firm also will help put together the criteria for a contractor to design and build the project, which would extend the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway 1.6 miles from its existing end at S Dale Mabry Highway to the Gandy Bridge.
That, in turn, will produce the detailed plans the authority will need when it goes out for design and construction bids in November or December.
The lanes, one in each direction, would be at least 30 feet off the ground and would be built on pilings in Gandy's median. As on the rest of the Selmon Expressway, drivers would pay a toll to use them.
About 48,000 cars and trucks a day use Gandy. The elevated lanes would be expected to carry an estimated 18,900 vehicles a day.
The idea is to get drivers who don't plan to stop along Gandy — including, in a hurricane evacuation, thousands of fleeing Pinellas residents — up off the boulevard. That would allow them to pass overhead without stopping at red lights and ease congestion for local traffic on the road below.
Motorists would save time and fuel, but gas stations, garages, hotels and restaurants that rely on the pass-through traffic could suffer, according to a 2009 study by the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research.
While the project has provoked vocal resistance in the past, no one spoke against it before the expressway board voted Monday.
That doesn't mean the opposition has melted away, said Gandy/Sun Bay South Civic Association president Al Steenson.
"The majority are not in favor of it," said Steenson, who wasn't able to attend the meeting. "This is our main street. We intend to protect it, and there's three main factors: No. 1 is aesthetics. No. 2 is economic impact. No. 3 is if you do it, is it going to be effective? We don't believe it is."
Three people, however, did speak in favor of a project they predicted would boost economic development, public safety in emergencies and transportation options on a day-to-day basis.
"When we drive home every day and we see the traffic on the different bridges coming back, we don't even think of coming across the Gandy as an option, and that's on good days," Joe Farrell, who lives in the Grand Hampton neighborhood near the Hillsborough-Pasco county line but works in Pinellas County, told the board.
Former expressway board chairwoman Kim DeBosier said a previous project, the reversible lanes from downtown Tampa to Brandon, also met with community skepticism.
"There were voices of dissent in our community, and they called it a boondoggle," she told the board.
But she said it helped for the authority to work with neighborhoods in Brandon and the Channel District that would be affected the most. That led to the creation of the Brandon Parkway at the eastern end of the reversible lanes.
The authority should have the political will to carry through on another regional project, she said, "but to do it with a commitment to make that neighborhood better than they ever dreamed it could be."
Authority representatives have been visiting businesses along Gandy to share information and listen to reaction to the project plans, communications director Sue Chrzan said.
"It's kind of a mixed bag," Chrzan said. "Most people are concerned about the construction, with people being able to get to them, and their doors being open during the construction. A couple of them were worried about the drive-by traffic not being there. … We did have a couple of them that were pretty positive and some (saying), 'Fine. Let's get it done.' "
If the project goes forward, construction could start in 2017 with the lanes targeted to open some time in 2020.
That's when the Florida Department of Transportation aims to start rebuilding Interstate 275's interchange at State Road 60 in West Shore as part of its planned Tampa Bay Express interstate expansion project.
The thinking is that having Gandy's elevated lanes open by then would give commuters an alternative to using the Howard Frankland Bridge during Tampa Bay Express construction.
Parsons Brinckerhoff was the highest ranked of four firms that responded to an expressway authority request for proposals. The others were Kisinger Campo & Associates, American Consulting and AECOM.
Parsons Brinckerhoff also is doing the advance work for an unrelated high-profile transportation initiative, Go Hillsborough.
That initiative has stalled amid a Hillsborough County sheriff's investigation into allegations of favoritism over how county officials awarded the contract to Parsons, whose subcontractors on Go Hillsborough include well-connected Tampa public relations consultant Beth Leytham. County administrators have said the selection was aboveboard, and the county's auditor has agreed.
Commissioners could decide in April whether to schedule a sales tax referendum to raise money for projects identified by the Go Hillsborough process.
Contact Richard Danielson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times