TAMPA — The Florida Department of Transportation, looking for a public relations win amidst toll-lane backlash, is planning to rebuild the West Shore interchange ahead of its more controversial counterpart in downtown Tampa.
District secretary David Gwynn said the Tampa office is hoping to get money in the state's next five-year work plan for the $1.1 billion overhaul of one of the region's most frustrating traffic snarls.
A project of this size will require about five years to build, meaning the new West Shore interchange is still about a decade out. Until then, the state is in the process of adding additional lanes near the Kennedy Boulevard exit for Interstate 275 that should open by the end of 2020.
Gwynn's scheduling decision at the heavily-trafficked business center means changes to Tampa's downtown interchange — a long-debated project — are further delayed. That may give opponents to highway expansion in the urban core more time to negotiate with state officials.
"Everyone seems to be saying if you have to focus on one part, focus on West Shore and then we'll come back to (downtown)," Gwynn said. "We have not received anywhere near the pushback as we have in the downtown interchange area."
The new West Shore interchange will redesign exit ramps, add travel lanes, establish more north-south connections within the district and link toll lanes in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties that are either already completed or about to start construction. Once the interchange opens, drivers who choose to pay will have a continuous path from the Gateway area in Pinellas to Tampa International Airport and north to Carrollwood.
"Instead of sitting in traffic through the West Shore area, you'll hopefully be able to get on your way much quicker," Gwynn said.
The rebuilt interchange will include more capacity and redesigned exits.
About 150,000 vehicles move through the interchange each day, according to traffic counts from Hillsborough's transportation planning agency.
Those vehicles on I-275 will have additional lanes as they drive through the interchange. The two lanes that go north to downtown Tampa from the Howard Frankland Bridge will expand to three. The same is true of the southbound lanes in that area.
Perhaps the biggest change will come to those who use the interchange to get to the airport or the Veterans Expressway from Pinellas County. Currently, one lane carries all that traffic. Once the interchange is complete, drivers can choose from one toll lane or two general purpose lanes.
"That will really open things up in what is a major bottleneck for Hillsborough, in particular," said Beth Alden, executive director for Hillsborough's Metropolitan Planning Organization.
The path of traffic connecting State Road 60 to I-275 northbound will also look different. The existing loop ramp will be replaced by a flyover, meaning drivers have a direct connection on a dedicated ramp above the interstate as opposed to the big circle they currently drive.
Traffic patterns coming through the West Shore area to and from I-275 will change as the department moves the frontage road to Reo Street. The new design seeks to improve the safety of turns onto the interstate from Reo by slowing speeds and reducing conflict points where cars cross other traffic.
"You won't have to stop at a signal, you'll just flow onto the ramp," state project manager Marshall Hampton said.
Members of the Westshore Alliance and the business community are particularly excited that the design will reconnect streets in the neighborhood that were cut off when the highway came in the 1960s.
North-south options in the district are highly limited, with traffic clogging West Shore Boulevard on a daily basis. The area is home to about 127,000 jobs as of 2015, according to data provided by Alden.
The state plans to open connections under the interstate so that Occident and Trask streets, each just to the west and east of West Shore Boulevard, can flow under the highway and offer more options for moving around the district.
"We really see the interchange as an opportunity to fix some of the things that were broken when they built the interstate 50 years ago," Ann Kulig, executive director of the Westshore Alliance, a coalition of businesses in the business district.
Unlike the downtown interchange, the project does not require buying any residential properties. The state is already in possession of much of the right of way. Any land purchases will be of business properties only, Gwynn said.
"Nobody is being moved from their home," Gwynn said. "We don't have as much of the emotional opposition that we get when we move into a neighborhood."
The new West Shore design also brings a different type of tolling. Unlike the static tolls on the Selmon Expressway, the cost of to use the managed lane will change based on demand: the more traffic, the higher the toll.
Othewise known as "dynamic tolling," it's meant to discourage too many drivers from using the managed lane, thus keeping the traffic moving at a steady, reliable speed. Such a system elicits criticism from those who say the lanes are designed only to benefit those who can pay and leave those who can't with less capacity.
While the rebuilt interchange will address issues directly in the West Shore community, a major thrust of its design is to provide a link for managed toll lanes throughout Tampa Bay.
Managed toll lanes were the focal point of the state's previous interstate plan for the region that sought to bring dynamic tolling to nearly 100 miles of interstates through Tampa Bay. That plan, known as Tampa Bay Express, came to a halt in 2016.
Under pressure from state legislators and the community, transportation officials decided to unbundle a series of projects, including a new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge, that had been tied together through Tampa Bay Express.
The state is now moving forward with projects independently when the timing and consensus is right.
The state has started building managed toll lanes (along with static tolls) in Pinellas County in the Gateway area. Managed toll lanes are also in the mix for the Howard Frankland Bridge, which officials expect to start later this year. Once the new span of the bridge is complete, two managed toll lanes will run in each direction, in addition to the four general purpose lanes that will be free.
The state also added managed toll lanes along the already tolled Veterans Expressway. Currently, there is no additional cost to use these lanes, which opened in December 2017. But the state is planning to activate dynamic tolling in these new lanes once it finishes another project along State Road 60 later this year.
When Tampa Bay Express died, so did state funding for some portions of the project. Money for the West Shore interchange had been billed for 2023, but was dropped. Because the interchange has such broad support — transportation planning groups in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco have ranked it as their No. 1 priority — Gwynn is hopeful the project can be added to the state's work plan by 2024, if not before.
"You never know when money might be available, so we want to be ready in case the money comes through earlier," Gwynn said.