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  1. Transportation

Toll express lanes could ease Tampa Bay roadway congestion

Interstate 275, pictured from 54th Avenue N in St. Petersburg, could get express lanes from north St. Petersburg to south of Bearss Avenue in Hillsborough County.
Published Jan. 16, 2015

TAMPA

In a sign of heightened interest, state transportation officials have scheduled two public workshops to explain a proposal that would create express toll lanes on Tampa Bay interstates.

Known as Tampa Bay Express, the plan involves adding separate express lanes along area interstates that drivers can pay to use. Though controversial elsewhere, express lanes are supposed to siphon vehicles away from overcrowded pockets of regular highway and offer a faster commute to drivers, according to the project's website.

The exact amount a driver would pay would be based on the actual travel conditions in the express lane at any given time.

The lanes would run along Interstate 275 from north St. Petersburg to south of Bearss Avenue in Hillsborough County. They are also being considered for much of the length of Interstate 75 in Hills­borough and for all of the county's stretch of Interstate 4, ultimately connecting with the Polk County Parkway.

The Florida Department of Transportation has been developing the toll idea as part of a larger plan to improve the flow of transportation around Tampa Bay, one of the most congested metropolitan areas in the nation. But only this week did the department announce its plan to present the idea to the public.

Not much is known about the meetings; transportation officials did not return phone calls Thursday asking for details. But according to a news release, the two workshops are "open-house style meetings with no formal presentation." Pinellas and Hillsborough counties will each host a workshop.

The workshops are designed to provide an outlet for members of the public. Some, such as Jan Allyn of Largo, questioned the lack of public notice.

"I think people need to be there and there needs to be discussion about this," said Allyn, 52, whose daily commute from Largo to Temple Terrace usually swallows an hour of her morning. "Who's going to benefit? Where are they going to put more lanes?"

Interstate toll lanes are not universally popular in places that have them. In Missouri, the trucking industry has opposed the idea on the grounds that it channels money into administrative expenses instead of road work. Others say transportation programs based on highway tolls only make financial sense along corridors flooded with traffic. Otherwise, the revenue might not cover the cost.

Kevin Thurman, executive director of Connect Tampa Bay, a local transportation group, said he is interested in the proposal. But he said there needs to be more discussion than just two public workshops.

"I think it's important that they're a little more explicit and that they have a more robust commitment," Thurman said of the department's planning. "That doesn't mean they can't do that. I just think these workshops need to be followed up with more meetings."

Three major points need to be addressed during the workshops, he said.

How long is the public input process going to take and how long will the public be able to voice concerns? How will this project combine with the traffic priorities the state already has in place? How is the project going to impact specific neighborhoods and economies, and communities in the area?

For example, Thurman said, "if the express lane cuts through Seminole Heights, will we need to tear down homes in Seminole Heights?"

Allyn, the Largo resident, said she will be going to the workshop at Minnreg Hall in Pinellas. She said she has a previous engagement, though, so she'll need to leave early in order to beat the traffic.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Zack Peterson at (813) 226-3368 or zpeterson@tampabay.com. Follow @zackpeterson918 on Twitter.

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