1. Opinion

Editorial: Improving I-275 in Hillsborough is a regional priority

Traffic backs up on I-275 in Malfunction Junction in Tampa. Photo look toward the north from the south.  SKIP O'ROURKE  |  Times (2008)
Traffic backs up on I-275 in Malfunction Junction in Tampa. Photo look toward the north from the south. SKIP O'ROURKE | Times (2008)
Published Jun. 11, 2019

Hillsborough County's main transportation agency will vote today on whether to move forward with a plan for improving Interstate 275 north of downtown Tampa. This is a critical project for an essential highway that will benefit local and regional commuters alike. By making it a priority, Hillsborough will address a problem that has existed for years and will only worsen as the region grows. A vote to move forward also reaffirms the state's obligation to help modernize the Tampa Bay's transportation system.

Hillsborough's Metropolitan Planning Organization, which establishes the county's transportation priorities, will vote on two changes to the interstate corridor as part of its annual long-term planning process. The first would be to add a lane to I–275 between Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Bearss Avenue, making the 8–mile stretch four lanes in each direction. The second would add a lane to the flyover ramp connecting southbound I–275 and Interstate 4. These are both keys to improving the flow of regional traffic.

While today's vote is not the final say on the plan, and only one project has a target date — of 2023 — today's vote is a key opportunity to get funding in the pipeline, build a closer working relationship with the state in the run-up to construction and massage the work plan with community input.

Critics say the move will only further scar the urban neighborhoods in I-275's shadow, and they blast the decision-making process as not being methodical or transparent enough to foster better alternatives. But that ignores several realities. The interstate is here, it's not going away and it plays a critical role in the region's transportation infrastructure. Adding capacity is essential, and one extra lane in each direction is hardly out of scale. The state also has demonstrated a willingness to listen and to respond to public input; one change Tuesday would affirm the state's commitment to replace the planned toll lanes north of downtown with free, general use lanes. And the state is only playing catch-up by expanding the flyover to I-4, where rush-hour traffic today routinely backs up for miles. These are key investments that will ease bottlenecks for thousands of daily commuters, benefit the entire region and improve safety near the busy downtown interchanges.

Regional leaders are right to support the plan, given I-275's role as a transportation spine from Pinellas to the newer communities north of Hillsborough. Tampa's reenergized downtown, Tampa International Airport, the West Shore business district and the University of South Florida continue to grow as commercial and regional destinations - and the area's economic well-being is intrinsically linked to the interstate's ability to function. But this project would also improve local connectivity, adding new lanes for miles in the central city, and creating new ramps on and off the interstate that reduce the driving dangers at Malfunction Junction.

A yes vote on the plans today would enable the state to move forward in finding the additional $220 million needed to complete the project. These work plans are years in the making, and Hillsborough should not lose this chance to secure its fair share of state construction dollars. By moving forward, Hillsborough also sets the stage for more public hearings to finalize the plans. The MPO's approval, together with the county's new leverage from its local transportation tax, puts Hillsborough in a great position to collaborate with the state on truly transforming the area's transportation grid. That includes a robust role for mass transit — and a better highway system.