Roads not taken: Failed transportation plans left Tampa Bay where it is today

High-speed rail, a beltway and other transport plans have fallen by the wayside.
Published November 3 2014
Updated November 3 2014

Call it the road not taken.

On the eve of Pinellas County's biggest transportation vote in decades, it's worth taking a spin through the Tampa Bay transportation plans of the past that are now collecting dust in file cabinets.

The St. Petersburg-Clearwater Expressway. The Pinellas Parkway toll road. The Clearwater Monorail. Tampa's rail plan. Pinellas' first three rail plans. The Brandon Beltway. The Bi-County Thruway.

They all died from a lack of money and political support. Some were fiercely opposed by residents. Shelving these plans led the Tampa Bay area to where it is today. It's why voters are about to decide the fate of the Greenlight Pinellas referendum to build light rail and expand bus service. It's why Hillsborough County will probably hold a similar referendum in 2016.

If you've ever wondered why Pinellas has so few highways; why Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties have more miles of toll road than Pinellas; why road construction on U.S. 19 never seems to end; and why Tampa Bay has no passenger rail even as so many similar-sized metro areas do; then let us be your tour guide.

Lost highway: A highway running the length of Pinellas, the most densely populated county in Florida, would have been really useful. But the county got left out when the interstate highway system was birthed in the 1950s. When the county finally got included in the 1970s, Interstate 275 only went through southeastern Pinellas, skipping the county's northern half.

Geography and politics played a role. Tampa, seen as the commercial center of the metro area, got crisscrossed by more highways. Democrats who controlled highway money didn't want to help Pinellas, then a Republican stronghold. And the parochial concerns of Pinellas' 24 cities kept politicians from uniting behind a single plan.

St. Petersburg-Clearwater Expressway: In the 1960s, this was envisioned as a toll road linking Pinellas' two biggest cities. Opposition along the proposed route, an unused railroad, killed it in 1969. That right-of-way later became the bicycle-friendly Pinellas Trail.

Pinellas Parkway: Voters hated this one. It would have been a toll expressway from St. Petersburg to Pasco County, following 49th Street N and what are now McMullen-Booth and East Lake roads.

In a 1976 referendum, it got rejected by an 8-1 ratio. "It was pretty decisive," Brian Smith, the now-retired Pinellas County planning director, said with a laugh.

That resounding defeat wiped out any future Pinellas toll roads, even as the surrounding counties would go on to build the Selmon and Veterans expressways and the Suncoast Parkway. (The tolled Pinellas Bayway, a product of the '60s, already existed.)

U.S. 19: So the quest for the long-lost Pinellas north-south freeway shifted by default to U.S. 19, a heavily developed surface road that's being retrofitted into a limited-access highway. That's time-consuming and expensive. County Commissioner Karen Seel figures that taxpayers have spent $1 billion on U.S. 19 construction in the last 15 years — most of it on buying rights-of-way for overpasses.

"One overpass on U.S. 19 would have built the North-South Expressway," Seel said.

Pinellas light rail: Pinellas leaders have kicked around ideas for light rail for 40 years. Until now, they've deemed it impractical and too expensive for this car-oriented county.

A decade ago, the last rejected plan envisioned a commuter line following a railroad freight corridor between the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, then heading east to Oldsmar and Westchase, then south to Tampa.

The problem with that route: It's a terrible way to get to downtown Tampa or Tampa International Airport. It also goes nowhere near the jobs-rich Gateway/Carillon area.

The Greenlight Pinellas route attempts to fix that, and is the county's first light-rail plan to actually go to voters.

The Monorail: Picture an elevated monorail, like the one at Disney World. In the 1990s, some in Pinellas were proposing this.

The benefits: It wouldn't disrupt traffic, and no houses would be bulldozed to make way for it.

At least two monorails were in play: A 38-mile line from Clearwater Beach to St. Petersburg, and a 2-mile line from Clearwater Beach to downtown Clearwater. Both were too pricey.

Ferries: Commuter ferries have been proposed for Tampa Bay many times, to no avail. Companies' attempts to launch a St. Petersburg-to-Tampa water taxi as a business venture foundered. Government officials have never been convinced that a taxpayer-subsidized ferry would be worth it. Now a high-speed ferry linking MacDill Air Force Base to downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg is in the works — maybe.

Lutz Expressway: It would have run through north Hillsborough, connecting the Veterans Expressway with I-275 and Interstate 75. Protests from Lutz residents killed it in the 1980s.

Bi-County Thruway: Pasco County's lost road. Conceived in the 1980s, it would have been an east-west toll route linking I-75 with the Trinity area near the Hillsborough-Pasco border. The county scuttled it in the 1990s when traffic projections failed to support building it.

Brandon Beltway: In 2006, the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority proposed a 70-mile toll road circling north Manatee, east Hillsborough, south Pasco and north Pinellas. The idea was dropped after critics dubbed it the "sprawlway."

High-speed rail: In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott killed a high-speed Tampa-to-Orlando rail line that was slated to get $2.4 billion in federal funds. Florida was going to pay a fraction of the cost, $280 million, but Scott fretted that overruns would put state taxpayers on the hook for more cash.

Tampa's rail plan: That brings us to Tampa Bay's last transportation referendum. Also, its next one.

In 2010, Hillsborough voters rejected, by 58 to 42 percent, a 1-cent sales tax hike for light rail. Hillsborough officials are now planning a referendum for 2016 — with less emphasis on rail.

This is not uncommon. For instance, it took Denver three referendums before voters okayed light rail. Today it has 47 miles of light rail, with 46 stations.

If Greenlight Pinellas doesn't prevail at the ballot box Tuesday, then transportation officials will try, try again.

Contact Mike Brassfield at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.

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