1. Opinion

Editorial: Building a bridge to a better Tampa Bay

The people are speaking and, thankfully, the Florida Department of Transportation is listening. After scrapping two flawed, heavily criticized proposals for a new span for the Howard Frankland Bridge, the DOT unveiled a new proposal this week that would better meet the needs of commuters in the near term and the distant future. It is particularly attractive because it expands options instead of limiting them and allows flexibility as needs and technology evolve.

The latest version includes a new eight-lane span that would incorporate both free and express toll lanes, as well as a bicycle/pedestrian path and room to add light rail if bay area voters ever decide to invest in it. The new plan may not be flawless, but it is undoubtedly superior to past proposals.

It was this time last year that the DOT gave up on a cockamamie idea that would have reduced the number of free lanes and added one toll lane in each direction. Elected officials and residents blasted that plan, and transportation officials wisely pulled it off the table. Three months later, the state came back with an expanded plan that added more lanes but limited options and was still inadequate to meet the demands of a growing market.

It appears the DOT finally heeded the input of local transportation boards when making this latest proposal for the Howard Frankland Bridge. A massive new span would allow the bridge to continue to offer four free lanes of traffic in both directions, while adding two express lanes in each direction. Two express lanes each way make more sense than one, and whether there should be tolls on those lanes can continue to be discussed even as the design moves forward.

The new span also could accommodate a light rail system more cost-effectively than previous plans. Instead of having to build a third span to make room for rail, the new plan could convert two express lanes into a light rail line and the other span would be enlarged to replace the lost express lanes. This would allow the light rail discussion to continue without committing until there is a specific plan for voters to consider.

Naturally, this plan would not come cheap. The new span, by itself, is estimated at $750 million. If light rail is added, that would mean an additional $190 million in costs. The idea of spending close to $1 billion is no one's notion of a bargain, but that type of investment is long overdue for a community that has lagged far behind similar-sized markets on transportation.

The flexibility gives local leaders a chance to gauge the market's growth and changing technology before committing to specific transit plans. Instead of forcing an either/or choice on tolls or express buses or driverless cars or light rail, it accommodates all those options and enables the community to continue to evaluate them. It may also be wise to further study the feasibility, cost and potential benefits of the bicycle/pedestrian lane on a high-speed bridge.

Coupled with the announcement in August of additional lanes being added to the approach of the Howard Frankland to reduce bottleneck congestion in Tampa's West Shore area, bay area commuters may finally begin to imagine a day when rush hour — or any hour — does not include a bumper-to-bumper dance along the most heavily traveled route between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The plan may undergo further revisions as the construction date nears, but the DOT has finally come up with a creative solution that begins to answer one of Tampa Bay's greatest transportation needs.