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  1. Transportation

Survey: Hillsborough residents support widening I-275 north of downtown Tampa

Traffic backups like this one at Malfunction Junction near downtown Tampa could be eased with the addition of a lane each way on I-275, from downtown to Bearss Avenue. More than 80 percent of Hillsborough County residents favor such a project, according to a new poll commissioned by the Tampa Bay Partnership. [Times (2008)]
Traffic backups like this one at Malfunction Junction near downtown Tampa could be eased with the addition of a lane each way on I-275, from downtown to Bearss Avenue. More than 80 percent of Hillsborough County residents favor such a project, according to a new poll commissioned by the Tampa Bay Partnership. [Times (2008)]
Published Jun. 5, 2019

TAMPA — A survey of about 400 Hillsborough residents shows strong support for widening Interstate 275 from downtown to Bearss Avenue and improving access to Interstate 4.

Approval from 84 percent of those surveyed is "exceptionally high and consistent, signaling that there is a clear mandate for steps to be taken," according to a presentation from Paul Fallon of Florida Opinion Research, which conducted the survey. It has an estimated margin of error of about 5 percent.

RELATED: How could Malfunction Junction be transformed? New videos offer a glimpse of the future.

Tampa Bay Partnership, a business group that often weighs in on transportation issues, commissioned the survey that took place by phone May 13-16. Partnership president Rick Homans is hoping the survey responses might encourage members of Hillsborough's Metropolitan Planning Organization to vote in favor of adding the project to the county's five-year plan, which prioritizes projects for the state to fund.

That vote, scheduled for Tuesday, would allow the county to access $80 million from the state in 2023 for the interstate changes, according to Beth Alden, executive director of the planning organization. The rest of the $300 million would still need to be secured in future years.

"This improves traffic flow and it fixes the bottlenecks," Homans said. "We need to continue to invest in our primary highway infrastructure."

More than 50 percent of those polled said they thought traffic congestion on that section of I-275 was a "very big" problem, with another nearly 30 percent saying it was somewhat of a problem. Women were more likely to think the traffic problem was worse, in addition to people who live close to I-275 and those who drive that stretch frequently.

The survey also found that a majority of people opposed converting the same section of the interstate to a street-level boulevard that would include more options for transit and pedestrians and help reconnect neighborhoods. Just under a third of those surveyed supported that plan, which would have dedicated lanes for public transit, bicycle and pedestrian paths, as well as landscaping and green space.

The boulevard concept first gained traction in 2016 during community discussions about the now-defunct Tampa Bay Express plan, which sought to bring express toll lanes to 90 miles of interstate. The tolls on those lanes would change based on demand, rising when traffic was heavy and falling when it was light.

The toll plan faced heavy opposition from urban communities that stood to lose homes, churches and community centers in the right-of-way acquisition. The state backed away from the project, and Florida Department of Transportation local secretary David Gwynn has since said the agency will not pursue toll lanes on I-275 north of downtown.

Gwynn told county officials in May that staff could do a long-range study of the boulevard concept while also moving forward with immediate needs on I-275, Alden said.

Of the more than 60 percent of survey respondents who opposed the boulevard plan, about 40 percent said they were concerned about congestion on local streets and another 28 percent said they worried about losing vital routes for employment.

Though Homans and the survey seemed to frame the interstate improvements and boulevard project as an either/or option, Alden said that's not the case.

"The boulevard concept is a big transformative change with a lot of implications that will all need a careful look, and that will take time," Alden said in an email Tuesday.

The state can pursue these short-term changes to the interstate while local officials decide whether to move forward with the boulevard plan, Alden said.

But Homans warned that community activist group Sunshine Citizens, which supports the boulevard, has repeatedly called on the county's planning organization to reject interstate funding and instead support options that focus on transit, bicyclists and pedestrians.

"Their position doesn't appear to reflect the interest and opinions of the community at large," Homans said. "Before the Hillsborough MPO makes a decision that could impact the entire Tampa Bay region, we felt it was important to have a better understanding of where Hillsborough County residents really stand on these issues."

Sunshine Citizens does have concerns about the changes proposed to I-275, spokeswoman Michelle Cookson said. The group instead supports a "no-build" option, which would not pursue any changes to the interstate as it currently stands.

Cookson criticized the partnership for spending "inordinate time and money" attacking the efforts of those who want to invest in transit and other transportation options.

"I don't see how a survey of 400 people comparing two completely unrelated projects and situations is indicative of anything negating the will of the voters," Cookson said in a statement. "We remain committed to holding elected officials accountable to their constituents and the state government accountable to open and transparent planning processes and costs."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.