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Is Crosstown the end?

Questions surround the future of the Expressway Authority, which has no more projects, except to make drivers feel safe and pay higher tolls earlier.

By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
Published April 12, 2005

TAMPA - Motorists using the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway will pay higher tolls 30 months earlier than planned in order to finance borrowing needed to finish the elevated-road project.

The news was a grim way for the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority to approach Wednesday's first anniversary of the collapse of a section of the Crosstown's new bridge, an event that nearly took the agency down with it.

The authority's board adopted a plan Monday to issue a $215-million bond beginning in June - $105-million to pay the cost of repairs and remaining construction and $110-million to repay a loan from the state Department of Transportation.

"The decision to raise the tolls was made in an abundance of caution," said authority spokeswoman Beth Leytham. A bond rating agency had warned that the toll increases needed to be moved up to give the authority the flexibility to repay new debt.

The toll increases range from 25 cents to 50 cents and will be phased in between July 2006 and January 2007. They will affect both cash customers and those who use electronic toll collection devices, such as SunPass .

The price hike is the culmination of a chain of circumstances that began April 13, 2004, when an underground column supporting the elevated roadway near 50th Street abruptly sank 15 feet. Problems with two more columns prompted a halt to construction in July.

It eventually was determined that 162 other bridge supports needed additional shoring at a cost of $80-million.

As problems escalated over the summer, rumblings began that the Expressway Authority had outlived its usefulness. There were suggestions from legislators and from Gov. Jeb Bush that the authority be dismantled and its projects taken over by Florida's Turnpike Enterprise.

The move died only after the board fired Executive Director Pat McCue - who has since become a senior vice president at Figg Engineering, the Tallahassee firm that designed the Crosstown bridge.

McCue was replaced with interim executive director Ralph Mervine, a man with a reputation as a troubleshooter on difficult projects. Under Mervine, the elevated road has been salvaged, construction has resumed and there is a firm August 2006 date set for the grand opening.

That's a year late but better than last summer's often-discussed option of tearing the road down.

What's next for the Expressway Authority is unknown. It has no more projects in the works.

It abdicated to the Florida Department of Transportation the road that will connect Interstate 4 to the Port of Tampa, diverting truck traffic around Ybor City. Two other projects in study phases - a beltway around Tampa and an east-west road for New Tampa - appear likely to fall to FDOT and the Turnpike Enterprise for financing and construction.

If the Expressway Authority has life after the Crosstown, what will it be? No one has specifics.

"I can't help but feel that as Tampa and Hillsborough County continue to grow, there will be serious transportation needs that the Expressway Authority can help fill," said Hillsborough Commissioner Tom Scott, a member of the authority board.

But others say new debt the authority will incur with its June bond issue could prevent it from having resources to fund new work well into the future.

"Right now, the authority has three issues, to meet the requirements to issue the bond, to complete the Crosstown project and to repay its debt," said Ken Hartmann, FDOT's District 7 secretary and a member of the authority board. "How much more it can do will depend on future traffic and tolls."

For Katherine Kelly of Brandon, an increase in tolls sets up a double dilemma.

"I'm not going to be convinced the road is safe until people have been driving on it for a long time without problems, and if they're going to make it even more expensive on top of that, well, I'll be taking another way into town," Kelly said.

Expressway Authority members know they face a public relations challenge to convince people of the safety of the 6-mile, reversible three-lane road between Brandon and Tampa. If skittish motorists are made more reluctant by rising tolls, the task of generating revenue becomes that much more difficult.

Tom Gibbs, chairman of the Expressway Authority board, sees a future for the agency, if only in planning new projects.

"It was the Expressway Authority that got the Veterans Expressway and the Suncoast Parkway going," Gibbs said. "But we couldn't afford to finance them, so the Turnpike Authority took over. It takes an agency like the Expressway Authority to develop the ideas and get them to the agencies that can make them happen."

Mervine, the interim executive director of the authority, agrees there is a need for the agency.

"The need is for a strong local group that can be a major partner in developing new road projects," Mervine said. "The need is out there. The projects are out there. They need to be defined and addressed."

And Mervine, who took over the agency saying he would see the Crosstown project through and then move on, is leaving the door open to dropping the word "interim" from his title.

"There's a lot of work that still needs to be done (on the Crosstown), and I need to be here for that," Mervine said. "After that, well, I haven't asked and the authority board hasn't said anything to me one way or the other."

[Last modified April 12, 2005, 01:24:13]


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