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Beautifying Gandy just dandy, say residents

Foes of a connector cheer a state senator's plan to improve the existing road. However, the bypass and elevated expressway proposals remain in play.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 11, 2002


Homeowners and businesses opposed to the Gandy Connector declared a small victory this week when state Sen. Jim Sebesta announced he wants to improve the existing road rather than build a bypass or elevated expressway.

How long it lasts remains to be seen.

Pinellas County officials still consider an expressway vital to the regional transportation system, a view shared by the state Department of Transportation.

"I am certain we made a step forward, but we still haven't solved the problem," said Al Steenson, who lives just south of Gandy Boulevard. "The DOT is not going to go away."

Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, said Monday his plan would improve the appearance and flow of traffic along Gandy, the "ugliest boulevard" he has ever seen. He urged the state to shelve plans to build the high-speed link between the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway and the Gandy Bridge.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker quickly responded with a letter Tuesday to Sebesta asking him to reconsider. The connector "could potentially save the lives of thousands in the case of a major hurricane," he said.

Residents applauded Sebesta's plan but still worry that the state will come back later and try to build the project. The residents opposed the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority's latest plan for a bridge down the center.

"I don't think there's anyone here who wants a darn thing done except the beautification," said Bart Salomon, who lives in Virginia Park and travels regularly on Gandy.

Sebesta's plan, unveiled at a public meeting at Robinson High School, would improve the intersections at West Shore Boulevard, Manhattan Avenue and Dale Mabry Highway. The state would synchronize stoplights, remove unnecessary curb cuts in front of businesses and create a landscaped median.

The cost: $10-million to $20-million vs. at least $250-million for the connector.

Pat McCue, executive director of the expressway authority, said his bridge proposal would cost $50-million to $60-million and take just a few years to build. He won't pursue it if people don't like it.

"I have no interest in building something that I wouldn't be proud to show my grandchildren," he told the audience of about 175 people from Regency Cove, Guernsey Estates and Gandy Gardens.

Sebesta, who chairs the state Senate Transportation Committee, reserved judgment on McCue's plan until he knows more about it. Florida can't afford an expensive option, based on the Sept. 11 attacks and the soft economy, he said.

The state is studying two options for Gandy: an elevated expressway along the north edge and a bypass through neighborhoods to the south. It also could do nothing.

Homeowners on both sides of Gandy oppose the options, saying either would destroy homes and businesses and reduce property values.

In August, Hillsborough County officials sided with residents and voted against the project. They sent a letter to Gov. Jeb Bush seeking his support and inviting him to their meeting on Wednesday.

Deputy County Administrator Pat Bean said Bush probably won't come. In a Oct. 4 letter to Commission Chairwoman Pat Frank, the governor said it would be "premature and inappropriate" to comment on the project.

The state has finished a study on the options and plans to choose one in December or January. The new alternatives could push that back, said Ken Hartmann, DOT secretary in charge of the Tampa Bay region.

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

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