By C.T. Bowen, Times staff, Published Dec. 19, 2022|Updated Dec. 22, 2022
The orange barrels and concrete barricades along Interstate 275 in Tampa won’t be going away anytime soon — an ongoing $85 million expansion of the highway won’t be completed until 2026.
But a question for transportation planners is whether those road construction accoutrements will extend nearly 8 miles northward in the future to add interstate highway lanes all the way to Bearss Avenue.
The Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization of elected and appointed officials scrubbed most of that proposal from its priority list in 2021, essentially meaning it wouldn’t be pursued in the next five years.
Adding two lanes along I-275 between Hillsborough and Bearss avenues, taking it from six to eight traffic lanes plus hardened shoulders for mass transit, carries an estimated $223 million price tag. There is no funding available.
The project, however, remains on the county’s long-range transportation plan through 2045. The divergent transportation plans haven’t gone unnoticed.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp and others on the planning organization, leery of expanding I-275 through Tampa’s urban neighborhoods, want the proposal removed from the 2045 plan as well.
But two of Kemp’s allies, Kimberly Overman and Mariella Smith, left the commission and their spots on the transportation planning panel after election losses. Overman’s replacement, Commissioner Joshua Wostal, is aligned closely with frequent transit critic Sharon Calvert of Pinellas County, who objected to scuttling the highway expansion.
“I still don’t believe the answer is sending more traffic into the (downtown) interchange by widening that middle part,” Kemp said. “But I think we’ll just have to see where the (transportation board) board is now.”
Long-range transportation plans are federally mandated project lists intended to match future federal and state aid to local transportation priorities. The documents are updated every five years and the planning organization adopted the current version in November 2019.
Temple Terrace Mayor Andy Ross questioned the timing of Kemp’s pitch. He wondered why the planning organization should go through the time and expense of doing community outreach meetings and holding public hearings to amend the current plan if a full rewrite is just a few years away.
“I just think it’s misguided, ” said Ross. “… Nobody’s going to sneak out between now and 2024 to build this. This (amending the current plan) is not a good, prudent use of taxpayer money.”
Some Tampa residents, already upset at the ongoing construction of the I-275/I-4 downtown interchange, don’t want to wait.
“Do we not have enough forethought to know that our city will suffer if this goes forward? We are still fighting over the existing projects that are killing the heart of Tampa. Just stop this,” said Candace Savitz of Tampa Heights.
Some of the discord extends back more than a half dozen years to a controversial state Department of Transportation plan called Tampa Bay Express, or TBX. Intended to reduce traffic congestion, it called for adding 90 miles of highway toll lanes that would have required taking up to 400 properties around downtown and the West Shore district.
The plan, downsized and rebranded five years ago as Tampa Bay Next, brought severe criticism from residents who said their urban neighborhoods in Ybor City and Tampa Heights would be sacrificed to ease regional commutes. Some Tampa Heights residents again denounced the state when they learned in late 2021 that the ongoing rebuild of the I-4/I-275 downtown interchange required moving a highway barrier wall closer to their neighborhood.
State traffic counts from 2021 show 163,000 vehicles travel each day on I-275 just north of Sligh Avenue. The volume diminishes at each northward interchange before dropping to 65,000 daily vehicles north of Bearss Avenue.
Projections for 2045 show the number of interstate travelers jumping close to 20% if two lanes are added to I-275, with traffic dropping on the parallel surface streets such as Nebraska and Florida avenues, according to a data compiled by the planning organization staff.
But the end result is most of I-275 still would be over capacity, even with the added lanes, and the daily traffic jam would just relocate southward toward Sligh Avenue.
On the flip side, without a wider interstate, more cars and trucks, as many as 30,000 each day, will squeeze onto Florida and Nebraska avenues, Dale Mabry Highway, 22nd and 40th streets and North Boulevard, said David Gwynn, the state’s regional transportation secretary. Local traffic numbers will grow even more, he said, if a robust regional mass transit system fails to materialize.
It presents a potential complication for a separate proposal for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority to operate a bus rapid transit route. That plan calls for linking downtown to the University of South Florida campus via higher-speed buses on Fowler and Florida avenues. The project, however, depends on potentially closing a current general traffic lane on Florida Avenue and turning it into a bus-only path.
“It most likely will not be approved because the model will now show traffic being diverted” to local streets if I-275 isn’t widened, said Gwynn. “So, we’ve gained really nothing in my mind, but we’ve given something up that we may want, which is the (bus rapid transit) project and the streetcar.”
“There’s some unintended consequences that could occur if you take this action,” Gwynn said.
The proposal creates winners and losers within designated equity justice communities of racial minorities or low-income residents. There would be reduced local traffic — and a higher potential for improved air quality — in west and east Tampa as motorists use the wider interstate. However, residents in Egypt Lake, the USF area and University Square would see an increase in local traffic within their neighborhoods.
“It’s a question of how do we balance the harms?” said Johnny Wong, principal planner for the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization.
The planning organization had planned to consider the fate of the I-275 widening in February but agreed in December to push off a decision until 2024.