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State officials unveil a new vision for the future of the Howard Frankland Bridge

A waterspout over Tampa Bay in the area of the Howard Frankland bridge seen from the southbound lanes of I-275 in June 2016. After proposing to replace a free lane with a toll lane last year, state officials reversed course. On Thursday the Florida Department of Transportation unveiled a new vision for the future of the bridge: There will be two bridges with a total of eight free lanes and two express toll lanes that drivers will have to pay to use. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]
A waterspout over Tampa Bay in the area of the Howard Frankland bridge seen from the southbound lanes of I-275 in June 2016. After proposing to replace a free lane with a toll lane last year, state officials reversed course. On Thursday the Florida Department of Transportation unveiled a new vision for the future of the bridge: There will be two bridges with a total of eight free lanes and two express toll lanes that drivers will have to pay to use. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published Jan. 20, 2017

TAMPA — State officials unveiled a new vision for the future Howard Frankland Bridge on Thursday. It will look far different from what commuters are used to driving today:

There will be two bridges with a total of eight free lanes and two express toll lanes that drivers will have to pay to use.

In order to get there, a new span must be built to the north of the existing ones. It will carry traffic south into St. Petersburg.

The new, six-lane structure will also include toll lanes going in both directions. They will be separated from the other lanes by a concrete barrier. The toll lanes will also be divided from each other.

The lanes on the existing southbound span will then be reversed, sending traffic north into Tampa.

Then the current northbound span — the original Howard Frankland Bridge, which opened in 1960 — will be torn down.

The revised bridge plan is a sharp reversal from the Florida Department of Transportation's old plan, which sought to convert an existing lane in each direction into a toll lane, leaving only three lanes for drivers who didn't want to pay to cross the bay. Those tolls would have fluctuated between 15 cents and $2 a mile, depending on traffic.

That was the plan on the books for years, but most elected officials said they didn't realize it until the Tampa Bay Times reported the loss of a free lane in September.

After facing harsh criticism, the DOT said it wouldn't put a toll on an existing lane. The new bridge plan wasn't supposed to be ready until June, but now officials plan to hold public hearings on this latest vision in the spring.

Bill Jones, the recently hired director of transportation development for the DOT's local office, presented the updated plan to Tampa City Council members at a community redevelopment area meeting.

"The recommended concept has changed," Jones said, "and we are now having four nontoll lanes in either direction as well as the express lanes on the Howard Frankland Bridge."

Construction is still expected to begin in 2019.

The concrete barriers are also a new feature, likely in response to safety issues created by similar express toll lanes in Miami. Those lanes are divided only by plastic polls, which drivers repeatedly run over to enter or exit the lanes earlier than intended. The phenomenon has resulted in an increase in crashes since the lanes opened.

Once they enter the Howard Frankland toll lanes, vehicles have to stay in them.

In addition, the new structure will be reinforced so it could one day carry a future transit system, such as light rail or dedicated bus lanes. However, there are no plans to implement such options.

The DOT has said repeatedly that it is dependent on local leaders to agree on transit plans and local funding options in Hills­borough and Pinellas counties before the state can commit resources to link those systems. If that were to happen, the state would then build a third bridge. Normal traffic and express toll lanes would move to that third bridge. The transit systems would then be built on the reinforced span the DOT plans to start building in 2019.

Jones is now the local lead on Tampa Bay Express, the state's $6 billion plan to add 90 miles of toll lanes to interstates 275, 75 and 4, rebuild the oldest span of the Howard Frankland and revamp the downtown and West Shore interchanges. He replaced Debbie Hunt, who previously oversaw the project but resigned in November.

Jones echoed DOT Secretary Jim Boxold's call last month to hit the "reset button" on TBX. Some community members and local politicians have complained that's a vague term that doesn't mean much.

"You're going to get your TBX no matter what we say to you," Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez said.

But Jones said it's a promise from the state to engage more with the community before moving forward with new plans.

"The reset implies a new approach and focus to delivering a comprehensive transportation vision that meets the needs of the Tampa Bay region," Jones said. "A key tenet of the reset will be enhanced collaboration with the Tampa Bay community."

Jones said the DOT is also in the process of completing a supplemental environmental impact statement that will identify changes in the community and environmental impacts since TBX was first approved 20 years ago.

DOT program management administrator Ed McKinney also gave a presentation, requested by officials last year, on the possibility of elevating TBX's toll lanes. The state does not recommend that alternative, McKinney said, because it would require more right-of-way than the current version. The DOT's stance baffled local officials.

"In order to elevate it and make it a smaller, narrower envelope, we have to take more (land) in order to make it happen?" Suarez asked. "That makes no sense to me whatsoever."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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