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  1. Transportation

Idea of building elevated lanes over Gandy Boulevard in Tampa gets new life

Construction workers collect soil from the Gandy Boulevard median last week that will be tested and analyzed.
Published Dec. 14, 2015

TAMPA — The idea of building a set of elevated lanes over Gandy Boulevard in Tampa is getting a fresh look.

A $192 million project being studied would use the lanes to extend the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway 1.6 miles from its current end at S Dale Mabry Highway to the Gandy Bridge.

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. You would pay a toll and could use them to skip the traffic lights on Gandy for a trip between the bridge and Dale Mabry.

The goal is to get just-passing-through traffic — including thousands of Pinellas residents evacuating in advance of a hurricane — up off of Gandy, moving it along more smoothly and reducing delays for purely local traffic.

State and local transportation officials have looked at the extension, variations of it and alternatives to it on and off for nearly 20 years. In South Tampa, reaction has been mixed, with plenty of opposition that hasn't faded.

"Oh no," Ranch House Grill owner George Konstantinidis said when a reporter called him about the project last week. "They're going to put us all out of business."

Meanwhile, work crews have started drilling on the median along Gandy to determine how far apart the piers for the elevated lanes could be spaced.

The Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority is revisiting a past project development and environmental study for the proposed extension. It has started public outreach with business and community groups, and plans to do some town hall-style events, probably in April, and other public engagement through September 2016.

"Obviously, there needs to be a very robust and healthy community discussion about it, which didn't happen the last time," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who sits on the expressway's board and supports the proposal.

The South Tampa Chamber of Commerce wants to be in that discussion and see detailed plans, president Kelly Flannery said. Chamber members get the regional transportation issues the project is designed to address, she said, but they want to know the details for dealing with everything from noise to business disruption.

"Our No. 1 concern is businesses along the corridor along the construction," Flannery said. "We want to make sure the businesses and also the residents that are along that corridor are protected.''

Estimates put current traffic counts on Gandy at 48,000 cars and trucks a day. When the expressway authority looked at this project once before, it projected the elevated lanes would carry 18,900 vehicles a day.

In 2009, a study by the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research concluded that the elevated lanes would save gas and time for drivers but would hurt gas stations, hotels, restaurants and mechanics that rely on pass-through traffic.

"No business will be successful under the bridge," said Konstantinidis, who said his diners signed petitions against the project the last time it got a serious look.

The expressway authority is looking to start construction in 2017, so the lanes could be open sometime in 2020.

That's when the Florida Department of Transportation aims to start work rebuilding Interstate 275's interchange at State Road 60 in West Shore. Having the Gandy elevated lanes open by then would give commuters an alternative to using the Howard Frankland Bridge during construction, authority spokeswoman Sue Chrzan said.

The authority plans to use cash reserves and money borrowed from the bond market to pay for the project. After the authority gained its independence from the DOT in 2012, it created a work program to be financed in part by money it has set aside in a fund for new projects. The elevated lanes on Gandy are the first project in that work program.

In 2013, the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization mailed a survey to 9,300 property owners within a mile of the Gandy corridor. About 900 responded, with 54 percent saying "yes" when asked whether a rendering of the elevated lanes looked like a good idea.

But Gandy/Sun Bay South Civic Association president Al Steenson cautions that there are two things worth remembering about that survey. First, the 54 percent came from the one in 10 recipients who responded. Also, the question was, does this look like a good idea, he said, not would you support it.

Steenson doesn't dispute that Gandy is congested, or that there may be significant numbers of people who want to see something done. But when his association's board discussed the idea last month, the mood of the room was still against the project.

"My feeling is that there are many, many people who are still opposed to it," he said. "If this is a done deal, we obviously want to be very, very involved in terms of the design."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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