The Interstate 275 expansion project between the Howard Frankland Bridge and downtown Tampa is little more than a controlled mess. It also offers the best example of how Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are joined at the hip when it comes to the state of the region's transportation system.
It's been political sport for observers on both sides of the bay to speculate on why Pinellas voters rejected the Greenlight Pinellas transit plan in November, four years after Hillsborough voters killed a similar package. But the two plans were as different as the reasons they failed. What's more relevant is that the losses on both sides impacted both counties — a fact captured every day as thousands of commuters are backed up on the bridge because a car is the only practical option.
The Florida Department of Transportation hasn't managed the highway project perfectly, and there are still too many surprises for motorists navigating the endless and seemingly random road closures. But rebuilding an interstate this big and this busy through the heart of a major metropolitan area is bound to be inconvenient. The DOT recently closed Armenia Avenue at I-275 through early February, forcing a major detour. It also closed until May the southbound exit to West Shore Boulevard, where 4,000 businesses and 94,000 workers comprise Florida's largest office community. The entrance ramps on nearby Lois Avenue also are shut down — all of which pushes heavier interstate traffic onto local roads, worsening them, too.
This is the daily reality for tens of thousands of commuters in both Hillsborough and Pinellas who depend on I-275 to get them between the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa. And it won't change any time soon. (The DOT has budgeted $24 million next year to buy right of way to improve Tampa's downtown interchange, which it last fixed only eight years ago.) As long as rail and a functional bus system are only dreams, the region will continue to play a losing game of catchup, making the bay area less competitive in the process.
For all the postmortems on the failed transit referendums, the first step in moving forward is to recognize that this region's fate is connected to what happens on both sides of the bay. That's what a drive right now on I-275 hammers home. Leaders on both sides who are uncertain how to dust themselves off need to look at the interstate project as a crystal ball. Is this the future, or is there something better that also will appeal to voters? And how much longer is there to wait? With two growing downtowns, a growing airport and tourism exploding at the seams, is there only more traffic cones ahead or a better plan for meeting this need for mobility?
That's worth some thought in the period formally known as rush hour.