TAMPA — Motorists heading north on the Howard Frankland Bridge are all-too familiar with one of the worst bottlenecks in Tampa Bay: Interstate 275 splits in half before the Westshore interchange, leaving traffic backed up for miles on the bridge.
But now state officials say they have a solution.
The Florida Department of Transportation wants to add a third lane to both directions of I-275 approaching the bridge on the Tampa side, District 7 secretary David Gwynn told the Tampa Bay Times Friday.
"Our models are showing that would provide significant relief in that area," Gwynn said.
Expanding that part of the interstate was part of the Tampa Bay Next project, formerly known as Tampa Bay Express. The old TBX plan called for adding 90 miles of toll roads to interstates 4, 75 and 275, but opposition led state officials to re-brand and re-think the $6 billion project.
But traffic entering Tampa from the Howard Frankland is so bad that the state plans to fast-track those improvements while the rest of Tampa Bay Next remains under review. Adding an extra lane to southbound I-275 will also help commuters taking the bridge to St. Petersburg. And neither of the new lanes will be tolled.
The new plan is in the preliminary stages and could cost at least $25 million — a relatively small number for a state agency with an annual $10 billion budget. Until now, fixing the chokepoint in the Westshore area was bundled together with all of the other projects previously planned for TBX.
The department wouldn't move forward with one project until local leaders were willing to approve all of them.
"We had everything packaged up with TBX," agency spokeswoman Kris Carson said. "Now that we're taking a step back with the reset, it's helped us work through some of this and find an interim solution."
The new lanes would need federal approval and the state would have to seek bids for a design-build contract. That could take two years and construction could start in late 2019.
The earliest the new lanes could open would be in 2021, but that's pretty fast in terms of interstate construction.
The expedited plan is welcome news to cross-bay commuters, particularly the business community, which has been clamoring for improvements to the Westshore interchange for years. The impetus behind this move is Gwynn, who was appointed to lead DOT's local office in June.
"Whenever congestion and backups can be reduced… that's reason to celebrate," Tampa Bay Partnership President Rick Homans said. "It's a positive step, and I like the pragmatism and the fact that (Gwynn)'s stepping in and finding a quick win that's meaningful to the community."
But the new district secretary didn't stop there. Gwynn also announced Friday that the department will stop acquiring properties in the footprint of the old TBX plan, including those from willing sellers.
Opponents of the interstate project have asked DOT repeatedly to stop buying land, especially around the downtown Tampa interchange, until a new plan is approved. The department wasn't taking land through eminent domain, but had previously refused to stop purchasing property from willing sellers — until Gwynn's decision halted those acquisitions.
"I said, 'You know what, that kind of sends a bad message,'" he said. "'We don't know yet what we're going to need. So let's wait.'"
The new policy suggests a move in the right direction to TBX opponents like Rick Fernandez, who is president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association.
"I do feel they're showing some good faith," Fernandez said. "It's acknowledges that when they acquire a property, they inevitably leave us with a derelict building.
"Continuing to do that when we don't have a concrete plan in place … seems at best illogical and at worst leaves us with a blighted situation."
The dual announcements addressed two of the major points of contention from community members who have spent the last three years battling DOT's plans for the region. And by addressing the bottleneck at the Westshore interchange sooner than expected, DOT is officially parting ways with the old TBX plan, allowing individual projects to move forward at their own pace.
"This is something that I think we can get done fairly quickly," said Gwynn.
The extra northbound lane into Tampa would likely continue all the way to N Dale Mabry Highway. Those short-term improvements, however, would not replace plans to consider completely rebuilding the Westshore Area Interchange. Instead, the third lane would be an intermediate step until the region can decide on a more robust plan.
"Until the entire interchange can be evaluated … this is a non-tolled interim solution," Gwynn said. "Hopefully these types of things will build some trust in the community."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.