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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000
TAMPA -- An expressway loop through neighborhoods south of Gandy Boulevard won the backing of a panel of Hillsborough County transportation planning officials Tuesday.
The county's Metropolitan Planning Organization board gave Florida Department of Transportation officials approval to begin preliminary engineering work on the highway that would connect the Gandy Bridge to the south end of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.
The panel may ask later that an alternative popular with neighborhood groups, widening Gandy from four to six lanes, also be examined.
But Mayor Dick Greco and other board members said they're convinced that the project has been studied to death and that it's time to move ahead with the southern loop, which Transportation District Secretary Kenneth Hartmann said won't be completed for 10 years under the best of circumstances.
"There's no question this is needed," Greco said. "It's our job to get it done. You can't keep these people (near Gandy) in limbo."
For more than a decade, state transportation officials have pushed to build a second expressway between St. Petersburg and Tampa.
Pinellas business and political leaders embraced the idea of turning Gandy into a limited-access highway and connecting it to the Selmon.
But the project got bogged down on the Tampa side.
Residents south of Gandy argued that the southern loop would destroy their neighborhoods. Some businesses on the commercial street worried that the loop and a proposal to build elevated lanes down the middle of Gandy would divert customers.
The debate was a planning exercise until Gov. Jeb Bush announced a $4-billion road-building program in January that included $19.1-million for initial design of a Gandy fix in Hillsborough County. The first chunk of money would be available in July in the state budget prepared by the Legislature.
The Gandy Civic Association and the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce support adding two lanes, saying that would be less expensive and disruptive than the loop or the elevated lanes.
But state transportation officials say traffic studies show that six lanes wouldn't handle the more than 60,000 vehicles projected to use Gandy by 2020, much less the number that would come from Pinellas and Manatee counties during a hurricane evacuation.
Opponents of the loop argued Tuesday that widening the road to six lanes should be considered by the state Department of Transportation along with the loop in the early engineering and environmental studies.
"They want to build the Pinellas Expressway through South Tampa," said Bob Hart of the Gandy Civic Association. "We're not asking you to build this (widening to six lanes); we're asking you to study it."
But officials of the Tampa Bay Partnership and the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce urged the MPO to study only options that can move traffic on Gandy.
"This is important to both our counties and the entire region," said Russ Sloan, the chamber president. "Think what this will mean 20, 30, 40, 50 years in the future."
The Department of Transportation proposes spending up to $24-million to make Gandy safer and friendlier to pedestrians if the loop is built.
Adding extra lanes would keep that from happening, said former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, representing HARTline on the MPO.
"A six-lane road just makes Gandy worse," he said. "It just turns it into Florida (Avenue). It just turns it into Nebraska (Avenue). Nobody wants that."
County Commissioner Chris Hart said fellow commissioners and Gandy neighbors weren't convinced by the Department of Transportation that a six-lane Gandy could not handle future traffic.
MPO members agreed they would consider the option within 60 days if county commissioners still doubt the projection after a briefing by transportation officials. They approved preliminary engineering on the loop and elevated lanes.
But observers believe that at an estimated cost of $125-million to $145-million, the loop has the inside track. Elevated lanes would cost between $250-million and $300-million, the Department of Transportation says, and still disrupt Gandy businesses. The six-lane plan is estimated to cost about $100-million.