TAMPA — The state has a grand vision for Interstate 275 through Hillsborough County that includes toll lanes, a rebuilt West Shore Interchange and a wider highway.
But a decision this week could play a role in how those things get done, or whether they get done at all.
Hillsborough's Metropolitan Planning Organization, which sets the priority list for county transportation projects, will vote Tuesday on two changes to the interstate corridor during its annual update of long-term and five-year plans.
The first is 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 other involves changes to the downtown interchange, including adding an lane to the flyover ramp connecting southbound I-275 and Interstate 4.
State officials downplay the votes as a small part of a long approval process. But opponents say the decisions could further commit the county to harmful highway expansion instead of looking at alternatives supported by the urban neighborhoods.
"The communities directly impacted by the ongoing request to widen the highway and add car capacity are still very alarmed," said Michelle Cookson, spokeswoman for Sunshine Citizens, which opposes interstate expansion. "We do want these bottlenecks resolved. I just wonder why that can't happen without the answer being the only way that can be fixed is by adding more lanes, induce more car travel and continue to impact the communities around the interstate."
The two projects are just a part of the Florida Department of Transportation's larger vision for I-275 in Hillsborough.
Plans include some of the region's most well-known traffic headaches: the bottleneck at the end of the Howard Frankland Bridge going into West Shore; the snarling, weaving lanes of Malfunction Junction; the long line of cars that back up southbound on I-275 as some try to merge onto I-4.
With the exception of one project scheduled for 2023, these proposals have no funding or start dates. But they will define future movement through the Tampa Bay region and affect the homes and lives of those who live in the shadow of the interstate.
Nearly everyone agrees these issues demand a solution, but the question of whether additional lanes are the best response has divided the community for years, pitting regional interests against urban neighborhoods.
"I understand people that live in the area, that road is right in their neighborhood, but it's not a local road," local Florida Department of Transportation secretary David Gwynn said. "What we can't do is ignore the regional functionality of it and say we're never going to do anything to improve it."
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The decision to expand I-275 between Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and Bearss Avenue rests with Hillsborough leaders, but neighboring counties and regional entities are weighing in, saying the entirety of Tampa Bay is affected.
The Pasco County Commission sent a letter last week to the Hillsborough transportation group in support of the widening. "Adding these general use lanes is an important priority to help the flow of people and commerce throughout our region," the letter said.
A transportation group comprised of elected officials and transportation experts in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco also supports the project, listing it as one of its five regional priorities.
And the Tampa Bay Partnership, a business group that often weighs in on transportation issues, conducted a May survey asking 401 Hillsborough residents about the expansion. More than 80 percent supported adding more lanes to I-275 north of downtown to Bearss Avenue.
Hillsborough's long-term transportation plan already includes widening that span to four lanes, but does so with toll lanes.
The state previously planned to add toll lanes to 90 miles of interstate in Tampa Bay as part of a plan known as Tampa Bay Express. It scrapped the plan in 2016 and later said it would not pursue toll lanes on I-275 north of downtown Tampa. Officials say Tuesday's vote would formally approve that change, taking toll lanes out of the official documents and replacing them with general purpose lanes.
But residents who live near the interstate say they don't want the highway expanded at all, whether the lanes are tolled or free. "It's hard to understand why adding lanes is the only solution that's ever presented, and that this time it will somehow produce different results," Cookson said.
Hundreds of people turned out to a public hearing in March. Almost all of the speakers were opposed to the project and asked the state not to expand the highway.
"Really, all you did was take away the tolls and it's still the same road that's going to do the same damage to this neighborhood and we are still opposed to it," said Seminole Heights resident Doreen Jesseph.
But state officials say the lanes will improve safety by reducing merge points and giving southbound drivers one lane to stay in from Bearss Avenue all the way to the I-4 entrance ramp.
The state has already allocated $80 million in 2023 to expand the interstate to four lanes from Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd to Hillsborough Avenue. It's seeking an additional $220 million for the rest of the project up to Bearss.
If Hillsborough votes to remove the additional lanes from its long-term plan, Gwynn said the state will not be able to move forward with anything in that section.
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The second vote Tuesday involves a proposal that emerged in May, leading some to wonder whether board members had enough time to consider the decision.
State officials have been studying the downtown interchange for years, releasing four plans to rebuild it in 2017. Two were large rebuilds of the interchange and two focused on adding toll lanes. But all four included a big footprint that would take anywhere from 40 to nearly 200 parcels of land, Gwynn said.
The state in May started sharing a fifth option, which it says is really a modified version of one of the existing four plans. It includes:
• Expanding the flyover ramp connecting southbound I-275 to I-4 from one lane to two, closing the exit ramp at Floribraska Avenue and building a new off-ramp for eastbound I-4 at 14th and 15th streets.
• Adding a lane from westbound I-4 to I-275 north and adding a ramp at 14th Street that goes exclusively to I-275 north.
• Widening the ramp from westbound I-4 to I-275 south to three lanes and moving the downtown exit further south to spread out exit points.
Those three elements would cost about $200 million and could be done separately as money becomes available, Gwynn said. Expanding the flyover ramp would be the first priority.
"We started to realize it's going to be a long time before we get enough money to build the downtown interchange," Gwynn said. "But something like these types of improvements, you could get funding in the next four or five years and make a big improvement on safety and not have to take a big swath for right of way."
But citizens were frustrated that the new option was added to the agenda so close to Tuesday's meeting and had not yet been vetted in a public forum.
"We don't know what this is. We don't know where it came from. Why does someone want millions of dollars for it?" Cookson asked. "There seems to be a hurry to insert this. … It does have implications again for the communities around it."
The state pitched these changes as a compromise, providing safety improvements while only taking five parcels as opposed to dozens or hundreds.
"We're just asking them to give us the support as a priority so we can go look for money," Gwynn said. "This is not the final approval of the project."
If officials did move forward, a public workshop would take place later this summer and the projects could be presented at a public hearing in early 2020 as a replacement to the four previously proposed interchange rebuilds.
If the leaders Tuesday do not vote to advance the projects, Gwynn said it would prevent officials from seeking money and could delay the project long-term.
"This feels reminiscent of four years ago when taxpayers and citizens are threatened with what is their own money," Cookson said. "The community county-wide has said we feel there is a lot of stuff that needs addressing and we don't feel this is the highest priority at the moment."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.