ST. PETERSBURG — Construction of toll lanes — including two new elevated roadways — is well underway in Pinellas County as the state moves forward with its $580 million Gateway Expressway plan.
Crews are working along 118th Avenue, around the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and near the Showtime Speedway, to build the new roads and additional lanes. The work, which will last for a couple years, has led to partial road closures and heaps of rubble and construction equipment.
The most immediate impact is a change to the airport’s entrance, which will move a quarter of a mile south of its current spot on Roosevelt Boulevard. That shift is supposed to happen this morning, but could be delayed to Friday or Monday if rains delay work. A new traffic light and signs will direct travelers to the new entrance.
Airport spokeswoman Michele Routh said the change should eliminate backups at the entrance and exit.
The impacts at the airport are just part of "probably the most significant transportation project we've had in the county in years," said Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county’s transportation planning agency.
The project, set to open in 2022, was the first leg of what was formerly called Tampa Bay Express, the state's multibillion-dollar effort to bring toll lanes to 90 miles of Tampa Bay interstates.
Though state officials quashed Tampa Bay Express in 2016 as a result of community backlash, portions of the plan have progressed independently.
The Gateway Expressway aims to relieve congestion along crowded corridors such as 118th Avenue North, Roosevelt Boulevard and Ulmerton Road, while providing a tolled option for those willing to pay, said Florida Department of Transportation spokesman John McShaffrey.
Once complete, it should alleviate the "huge bottle neck" at 49th Street and Ulmerton Road, Blanton said, while also providing a much-needed connection between the area's two major thoroughfares: U.S. 19 and I-275.
"Those should have been connected a long, long, long time ago," Blanton said.
The plan involves building two new roads leading to Interstate 275: State Road 690, an elevated viaduct along the median of 118th Avenue North starting at U.S. 19, and State Road 686A, an elevated expressway starting at the southern end of the Bayside Bridge. Both will be entirely tolled, with two lanes traveling in each direction.
One toll lane also will be added to each direction of I-275 from Gandy Boulevard to Fourth Street North. These lanes, like the ones they will connect with on the new Howard Frankland Bridge, will require a toll that fluctuates based on demand. The more traffic, the higher the toll.
"The new state roads will remove a lot of that traffic from the surface roads, which will enable quicker access on the new system," McShaffrey said. "All of that will help congestion in the Gateway area."
But those driving along 118th Avenue who don’t wish to pay a toll will be left with one fewer lane. The construction includes removing a lane in each direction from 118th in order to make room for the elevated toll roads, leaving two thru-lanes, McShaffrey said.
State engineers predict the new toll option will relocate much of the traffic that is currently driving along 118th Avenue, McShaffrey said.
"The reduction of lanes won't make a difference on 118th Avenue," he said. "They will actually function as well as, or even better, as it does today."
Whether that happens remains to be seen.
Opposition to the state's original plan to remove a free lane from the Howard Frankland was what eventually led to the termination of Tampa Bay Express and a new plan for the bridge.
Many opposed the toll lanes from the start, calling the fluctuating tolls "Lexus lanes" that only serve those who can afford them. But both McShaffrey and Blanton said tolling — whether dynamically priced along I-275, or the traditional static pricing in the Gateway Area — was the only method that allowed for these roads to be built.
McShaffrey said the existing budget would not be able to pay for the improvements, but tolling allows a revenue stream to cover the operation and maintenance of the new roadway.
"I think if we’re going to continue to build roads in Pinellas County, tolling is probably going to be part of the solution to some degree," Blanton said.
While residents and elected officials in Hillsborough County were vocal in their opposition to the toll plan as whole, the state's vision for Tampa Bay's interstates was received more positively in Pinellas.
Part of that difference is likely connected to the impact on residential areas, Blanton said. Tampa Bay Express targeted homes and land parcels in downtown Tampa neighborhoods, such as Ybor and Tampa Heights. But land required for Gateway Expressway is mostly industrial, with the impacts landing on the airport, office space and manufacturing.
"You're not really impacting anybody's neighborhood," Blanton said.
Pinellas elected officials approved the project as part of the county's long-term transportation plan. Some have even discussed extending the toll lanes on I-275 farther south into downtown St. Petersburg.
Leaders with St. Petersburg, Forward Pinellas and the local chambers of commerce have asked the state to extend the I-275 toll lanes past Gandy Boulevard to Interstate 375, right into the heart of St. Petersburg.
McShaffrey said such a project would be separate from the work in the Gateway area. The Florida Department of Transportation is researching the plan and, once completed, it would need to pass a vote by Forward Pinellas before the state could pay for it.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or 727-893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.