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Residents decry roadway plans

There were few fans of either of the proposed plans for connecting the Gandy Bridge to the Selmon Expressway.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 12, 2002


After months of debating options for the Gandy Connector, area residents have a simple message for state transportation planners.

Go back to the drawing board.

More than 125 people packed a Gandy Civic Association meeting Monday night to reach a consensus on how the state should connect the Gandy Bridge and the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

Despite past differences, property owners said the state's plans for an elevated expressway or a bypass would ruin their neighborhood, increase pollution and reduce their home values.

Instead, they want the state to reconsider widening Gandy to six lanes or building a tunnel. Some prefer doing nothing.

"Just don't come through my house," said Jeanette Fernandez, 78, who lives in the path of a proposed bypass.

The Florida Department of Transportation is considering two main options: a four-lane bypass south of Gandy and a four-lane elevated highway along the northern edge. Either would give Pinellas County residents another escape route during hurricanes and accommodate more traffic on Gandy.

People in Regency Cove, a mobile home community north of Gandy, oppose the elevated highway. Homeowners south of Gandy oppose the bypass.

"We didn't come here to retire to be asphyxiated," said Elaine Belba, 62, who moved to Regency Cove with her husband, George, less than two years ago.

Monday's meeting marked the first time both sides got together to reach common ground. The standing-room-only crowd spilled outdoors, even in the rain.

Organizers invited politicians, candidates and government officials to speak on the issue and field questions. Mario Parra of DOT attended to listen, but told the group he could not comment.

Warren Weathers, Hillsborough County's deputy property appraiser, said the bypass would likely reduce property values. When the crosstown sliced through Hyde Park and Palma Ceia, adjacent property values dipped 20 to 25 percent, he said.

County commissioners Chris Hart and Pat Frank urged the group to make their opinions known to state lawmakers before DOT picks an option in December.

"This is way beyond the power of engineers," Hart said. "It's strictly with politicians."

Frank questioned the need for building the connector, saying traffic moves fine on Gandy.

"What are we doing this for? Are we doing this for us?" she said.

"It's about across the bay."

When Frank asked about the "no-build" option, the audience burst into applause.

Neil Cosentino's tunnel proposal drew strong support. The state considered the option a few years ago, but ruled it out mostly because of cost. Officials also didn't want to create an underground evacuation route.

Cosentino, who has studied the Gandy issue for years, said the tunnel deserves a second look. It's cheaper and it doesn't destroy tax-paying homes and businesses, he said. New Jersey built a similar one with positive results.

"To believe that our community can't do it is unacceptable," he said.

The state estimates the overpass would cost $311-million, vs. up to $277-million for the bypass. Figures include the cost of design, construction and land. Another $23-million will go toward improvements along Gandy.

The overpass would force 37 businesses to move. The bypass would affect fewer businesses, but dozens of homes and apartments.

Construction could start in 2009, after state and federal funding for the project is set aside.

At this point, the widening project and tunnel are not under consideration, project manager Gabor Farkasfalvy said Tuesday. Top transportation officials, however, could change that.

Farkasfalvy said he has heard little support for not building a connector.

Still, it's always an option.

"If no one wants the project, then why would we spend the money?" he said.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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