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Are express lanes in Tampa Bay's future despite neighborhood concerns?

Tampa Heights Community Center near I-275.



Tampa Heights near the I-4 on-ramp.

Tampa Heights near the interstate.

Tampa Bay motorists may soon be living more of their lives in faster lanes of traffic despite objections from neighborhood residents potentially affected by plans for transformational change in local interstates. 

Progress on tolled express lanes along Interstates 4, 75 and 275 is moving forward for the Tampa Bay area, where hundreds of thousands of drivers hit the highways each weekday. 

Though the express lanes project has been in Florida’s state transportation plan since 1996, the $3 billion initiative didn't receive the green light until early August 2015 when the Metropolitan Planning Organization officially approved the ambitious highway expansion plan. 

The proposed express lanes would follow I-275 from Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg east toward downtown Tampa and then proceed northward to Bearss Avenue. 

I-4 would receive express lanes from the interstate’s juncture with I-275 and follow the interstate corridor east to the Polk Parkway near Lakeland. 

Interstate 75 in eastern Hillsborough County would also be equipped with express lanes from State Road 674 in the Sun City Center area to just north of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in New Tampa. In some instances, there would be long stretches of express lane without any interchanges. One example is the eight miles of planned tollway between Bearss Avenue in North Tampa and the I-275 & I-4 interchange near downtown Tampa.

Spanning some of the busiest, most congested highways in west central Florida, the express lanes would be constructed in the outer lane of the current interstate corridors and operate as separate toll roads in addition to the existing general-use, un-tolled interstate lanes. The objective is to provide motorists with a speedier route — the average speed would remain about 45 miles per hour. Tolls would vary up and down based on real-time traffic conditions. 

There would be three to four general-use lanes along the stretch of modified interstate highway, with one express lane in each direction. However, for the busy stretch of interstate near Tampa International Airport (between the West Shore business district and the State Road 60 interchange area on I-275) and near downtown where I-275 & I-4 intersect, there would be two express lanes heading in each direction. 

Express lanes as a Legacy Project

Ramond Chiaramonte, executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA), says the express lanes are necessary for an area that has positioned itself as the primary economic, recreation and entertainment hub for West Central Florida.

Tampa, specifically, has another focal point that keeps thousands of cars on local highways: Tampa International Airport. 

“8,000 people from Hillsborough County use the airport everyday and 11,000 from the area but outside Hillsborough County, and they represent just 39 percent of daily users,” Chiaramonte says. “The rest constitute travelers from other parts of the nation and from around the world.” 

Chiaramonte, a former Hillsborough County urban planner who oversees transit needs in seven Tampa Bay area counties, says the express lanes construction is a “legacy project” that could benefit the Tampa area for decades.

While the express lanes certainly stand as a primary feature for this extensive interstate endeavor, there are two other major key components that will be involved during the multiyear construction project: the complete replacement of the northbound lanes of the Howard Frankland Bridge and total reconstruction of Tampa’s I-4 & I-275 interchange, a knot of on-ramps and off-ramps, flyovers and bottlenecked interstate lanes that many locals disparagingly call “Malfunction Junction.” 

“We know we need to rebuild the interchange,” says Debbie Hunt, Director of Transportation Development with the Florida Department of Transportation

The interchange, which was built in the early 1960s and temporarily modified in 2006, is located near some of the most historically sensitive neighborhoods impacted by the multiagency interstate project. 

The Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights neighborhoods north of downtown Tampa are finally solidifying as hip, urban places to live after being permanently divided by the highways built during the early 1960s. 

Grappling with & addressing local concerns 

Many residents in the Heights as well as community leaders have voiced concerns about the impact the express lanes project may have on these same local neighborhoods that suffered economically for decades before more recent investments by home buyers and business owners. 

Leroy Moore, VP and COO of the Tampa Housing Authority, offers his personal opinion on the matter, saying progress has been made in minimizing highway impacts on local communities over the last 20 years as a direct result of “learned experience due mostly to historical damage that was done to communities in the urban renewal days” of the 1960s. 

“Yes, I do think we as planners have learned much about ways to lessen the adverse physical devastation to neighborhoods. But my opinion is also that adding additional lanes to already congested cities is not progressive planning,” Moore says. “We need to plan better on using the arterial ways we have already created to conduct more volume and that is best done by modernizing our transportation system for the future. 

“Use the existing lanes to move more people and that can be best accomplished by adding rail, not roadway, either elevated or on-ground, to our existing arterial ways without adding expanded width to the highways.” 

Even some local motorists, the intended beneficiaries of the express lanes, are concerned. Tampa resident Nicole Lynn Knaak believes the construction and traffic flow in the surrounding neighborhoods will “be an absolute mess.” Regarding the expense of tolls on what many call 'Lexus Lanes', Knaak continues, “It’s also not fair to those who are barely getting by as it is.” 

“Let’s work on light rail first, as that would help take cars off the road, reducing traffic -- instead of making additional lanes that could encourage more cars on the road,” says Robert Kahns, a digital marketing specialist in Tampa.

Hunt explains that a 44-foot-wide area in the median of the interstate is earmarked for potential development of “premium transit” options that could consist of light rail or other modes of transportation. During upcoming reconstruction of the northbound lanes of the Howard Frankland Bridge, a separate platform will also be built to accommodate potential future implementation of a rail system or transit options. 

Another mass transit consideration would be an express bus system that conveys commuters between major connection points in the Tampa Bay area, such as Tampa International Airport, downtown Tampa and the University of South Florida. “You must have express lanes to have express bus routes,” Chiaramonte explains. “This [project] could be a real game changer for mass transit.”

Taking cues from other cities 

The concept of express lanes, the late-1980s brainchild of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate named Robert Poole, has become very popular in many major cities, including Seattle, Dallas, Minneapolis and Houston. Including the Tampa Bay project, Florida is slated to add some 170 miles of new express lanes by the early 2020s. Other Florida cities that could soon see new express lanes or expansions to existing express lanes are Orlando, Jacksonville and Miami.

In 2008, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority added express lanes to Interstate 95 from State Road 112 in Miami to the Golden Glades Interchange in North Miami, and the expressway authority is now extending them north to Central Broward County. Tolls there range from 50 cents to $10.50, depending on the number of cars using the express lanes. 

A trip north from Tampa along I-75 takes motorists to another region that is using express lanes: the Atlanta metropolitan area. The Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority unveiled express lanes along Interstate 85 in the northeast region of the Atlanta metropolitan area in 2011. These express lanes are called “High-Occupancy Toll” (HOT) lanes and are free to carpoolers with three or more occupants per vehicle, motorcycles, emergency vehicles, alternative fuel vehicles and specific registered vehicles. 

“This section of I-85 northeast of Atlanta has been one of the most congested commuting corridors for decades. An HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane (for carpools with two or more people) was in operation, but even the HOV lane became congested during morning and afternoon rush hour,” explains Bert Brantley, Deputy Executive Director for the State Road and Tollway Authority. “Currently we have 15.5 miles of express lanes with the current I-85 express lanes in Gwinnett County,” Brantley says. 

“The I-85 express lanes project not only introduced tolling to the I-85 corridor, but also converted the HOV 2+ (high-occupancy vehicle lane for two people) lane to a high-occupancy toll (HOT 3+) lane. The concept is to use pricing to get traffic moving in the lane and provide at least one lane that is reliable while allowing registered 3+ carpoolers and transit vehicles free entry into the lane,” he relates. “This made carpooling and transit a much more attractive option for commuters, now that those vehicles aren’t stuck in traffic just like the cars in the general-purpose lanes.” 

The toll-based concept has apparently proven successful for Atlanta. The metropolitan area will see the construction of an additional 42 miles of express lanes over the next few years. 

Local business organizations support Tampa Bay express lanes

Fifth Third Bank Tampa Bay President and CEO Brian Lamb serves as the chair of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional marketing and business membership organization that stands behind the express lane project. 

“The Tampa Bay Partnership fully supports the Tampa Bay express lane project,” Lamb says. “We’re excited to make progress on a plan that was first shaped by TBARTA and the Tampa Bay Partnership years ago.”

According to the Tampa Bay Partnership Transportation Vision 20/30/40, the organization’s goal is to have 20 miles of express lanes in operation by the year 2020. By that same time, the Tampa Bay Partnership also hopes to see construction start on a new northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge, which is tied to the express lanes project. This same plan calls for 20 miles of rapid-transit regional bus service along high-demand corridors, another objective that is dependent on the completion of local express lanes. 

While Lamb expresses the Tampa Bay Partnership’s enthusiasm for the massive express lane project, he shares regard about the impacts that the interstate construction project will have on local neighborhoods. 

“We are concerned about the impact the project would have on Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights,” Lamb remarks. “We’ve been drawing and redrawing plans that have been in place for 20 years, and [MPO Chairman and Hillsborough County Commissioner] Les Miller has implored the FDOT to work with the affected communities.”

Making express lanes a “win-win” for communities

While virtually everybody involved in the express lanes project concedes there will be impacts on Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights, the collective goal has been to mitigate any negative effects upon these communities. At the FDOT, Hunt says the coming construction provides an opportunity to enhance the surrounding neighborhoods. 

“As plans move forward and community consensus is gained, bike trails, dog parks, pedestrian walkways under and around the highway, and added lighting to help make the area safer will be included as part of the overall project. The goal is to help beautify the area and make the project complementary with the community by providing community gathering spaces,” she says. 

Meanwhile, many residents want to ensure that officials learn lessons from other municipalities, such as Atlanta, before moving forward with the express lanes project in the Tampa Bay area.

“There are portions of I-85 in Atlanta with 14 vehicle lanes going through the city, all of which are at absolute capacity,” says Moore. “Portions of I-85 with exit transfers to other freeways expand at points up to 22 lane-width arterial ways. Such expansion is not sustainable without tremendous generational impacts on a community, its cultural asset and its people.”

Hunt assures that the FDOT and other groups involved with the Tampa Bay project are taking cues from cities that have already begun using express lanes. “We will take the best of the best and leave the worst of the worst.” 

She also wants construction-weary motorists to know that, in addition to mitigating long-term impacts on local communities, the FDOT intends to minimize the time during which drivers will have to contend with barricades, detours and other construction-related headaches. 

“We need to get in, construct, and get out,’’ says Hunt. “Once we are done, we won’t need to do any further construction work for a very long time.”  

Acknowledging the need for transportation improvements while working with those who are impacted by the plans, Hunt believes there will be a solution that all sides can come together on. 

“We will get to an agreement on what the project will look like. It will happen,” she says. “This has to be a win-win-win for everyone.” 

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

 Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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