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Road crews clearing a path to progress
By MIKE BRASSFIELD, Times Staff Writer
Published January 2, 2008
At I-275 near W La Salle Street in Tampa, equipment is making changes to accommodate growth.
[Chris Zuppa | Times]
[Chris Zuppa | Times]
Rush-hour traffic crawls along a stretch of I-275 in Tampa where a road-widening project is likely to take several years.
Break out the orange barrels and fire up the bulldozers. Get the flagmen ready. A new year is dawning, and it's time to kick some asphalt.
A slew of major road construction projects are coming up this month and throughout the year as government keeps trying to catch up with the Tampa Bay area's explosive growth.
There would have been even more roadwork, if not for budget cuts because of declining gas tax revenue that will delay some local projects by two or three years.
That includes building overpasses to eliminate traffic lights on U.S. 19 in mid Pinellas County; widening Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in east Hillsborough; and buying rights of way to widen Interstate 75 in Pasco.
Federal, state and county gas taxes pay for roads. But the high price of gas means people are buying less of it. So the Florida Department of Transportation is trimming $1.4-billion from projects statewide over the next five years.
"Revenue projections are lower. Less fuel is being consumed, and that's good for the environment. But at the same time, that's how we fund our infrastructure," said regional Transportation Department secretary Don Skelton.
The good news is, dozens of major local roads will still be widened or refurbished in the near future.
The two biggest local highway projects are well under way.
A clogged stretch of Interstate 275 in Tampa is being expanded, a task that will take several years. Workers have started building lanes and overpasses alongside the highway west of downtown. Drivers will be inconvenienced this spring and summer when the northbound exit ramp to Ashley Drive and an entrance ramp from Himes Avenue will be closed for months.
Also, new overpasses will open this summer and fall in the cluster of major roads that are under construction south and west of Tampa International Airport.
Later this year or early next year, they'll make some changes to northbound I-275 at the eastern end of the Howard Frankland Bridge. Cars headed for the flyover ramp to the airport will be separated from other traffic earlier on the bridge. This is intended to cut down on last-minute lane changing.
In about two years, plans call for construction to start on the Crosstown Connector, an elevated link between Interstate 4 and the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.
The biggest news on the highway front won't come in 2008. Florida's Turnpike is finally earmarking money to widen the Veterans Expressway and extend the Suncoast Parkway through Citrus County. The turnpike's new five-year plan calls for expanding the Veterans from four to eight lanes between Memorial and Gunn highways around 2012. Officials plan to re-evaluate what route the controversial "Suncoast Parkway II" should take through Citrus, then start buying up rights of way in a few years.
A deadly bridge collapse in Minnesota five months ago focused attention on bridge upkeep. Locally, some aging and decaying spans are being replaced.
A new span over John's Pass in Pinellas County will open this year, to be followed by the construction of a second span. Two ailing drawbridges on the Pinellas Bayway will be replaced, the first one starting in August. A new Belleair Causeway is to be done by 2010.
Here's another county trying to catch up with its population growth. Even though the state will spend $400-million on Pasco's roads over five years, major projects are being pushed back.
Here's what will happen:
This month, work should start on a $60-million effort to extend State Road 56 and create the biggest intersection in the Tampa Bay area, at SR 56 and Bruce B. Downs.
Nearby, the state will improve two I-75 interchanges -- at County Road 54 early next year and at SR 56 in 2010.
Sometime after July 2010, the state plans to tackle two long-delayed tasks: Widening three miles of U.S. 41 through Land O'Lakes, and starting the first leg of what will someday be a "continuous right-turn lane" added to U.S. 19 all the way through Pasco.
Major road work is coming to the Spring Hill area -- but not for a couple of years.
First the county plans to widen busy Elgin Boulevard to four lanes in 2010. Then, on a larger scale, the state will widen 4 miles of Cortez Boulevard, also called State Road 50, to six lanes with a 12-foot-wide bike path beside it. That's supposed to start in 2011.
Major construction work probably won't start until early next year, when the city will "streetscape" Fourth Street N from downtown up to 30th Avenue N, beautifying it.
Also, "traffic volumes are growing rapidly on Gandy Boulevard," said city transportation director Joe Kubicki, so Gandy will be widened to six lanes from I-275 to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street sometime in late 2009.
On the city's west side, 66th Street from Tyrone to Park boulevards will repaved in 2010.
Pinellas, which lacks freeways, is retrofitting U.S. 19 into a north-south expressway north of Ulmerton Road. To that end, it has been building overpasses to whisk cars over what used to be traffic-signaled intersections.
"All of a sudden you're moving at 55 mph where before you were backed up," said Pinellas planning director Brian Smith.
But the next two overpasses, on the stretch of U.S. 19 between Roosevelt and Gulf-to-Bay boulevards, are being pushed back to 2009 and 2010 due to budget cuts.
They'll also widen a bunch of congested streets in mid Pinellas: Bryan Dairy, Starkey, Ulmerton and Walsingham roads.
Big changes are coming to Busch, Bruce B. Downs and Gandy boulevards; 40th Street; and Hillsborough and Nebraska avenues.
Starting this month, the state will replace Gandy's center turn lane with a landscaped, 30-foot-wide median. To make room for that, they'll move curbs back 15 feet on both sides of the road. Neighbors suspect that wide median may someday be the site of an elevated expressway.
Nebraska Avenue is also losing a lane. From downtown to Hillsborough Avenue, it's shrinking from four lanes to two, with a center turn lane.
On crash-ridden Hillsborough Avenue east of I-275, the state will replace the center turn lane with a raised median this year. Officialsalso will beautify Busch Boulevard, closing many openings in its median.
The city will be widening N 40th Street for years to come. And the much-anticipated widening of Bruce B. Downs won't start until early next year.
Hillsborough, which has a number of failed roads, is busily turning two-lane rural roads into four-lane divided ones. This is happening all over the county, with several projects under way or kicking off this year.
To the north, the county will widen Gunn Highway, Lutz-Lake Fern Road and Race Track Road.
Near Brandon, it will expand Boyette and Bell Shoals roads. But work on MLK Boulevard has been pushed back to 2013.
The biggest job of all: Possibly this summer, workers will start widening an overburdened 10-mile stretch of U.S. 301 between Gibsonton and Sun City Center. It'll go from two to six lanes.