The proposed $3.3 billion Tampa Bay Express project has its critics – especially in areas near downtown Tampa, but it’s a project that’s needed to help relieve regional congestion, according to Ed McKinney, district planning and environmental administrator for District 7 of the Florida Department of Transportation.
“Currently, Tampa/St. Pete ranks seventh in the country for cities of its size for congestion,” McKinney said.
“I don’t have to tell you all, if you’ve driven around the area, we’ve got a lot of congestion, and that hurts us in a lot of ways,” McKinney said, during a recent luncheon meeting of the Central Pasco Chamber of Commerce.
“It hurts us when it comes to attracting new businesses. It hurts us mostly when it comes to attracting new residents,” he said.
People moving into the area want to know that they’ll be able to get to work or wherever they need to go, without being stuck in traffic for a half-hour, he said.
The problem is only going to get worse, as the region’s population increases and more jobs are created, he added.
“In Pasco County, population is expected to grow 97 percent by 2040,” he said. Hillsborough County is expected to grow by 48 percent, and Polk County by 41 percent during the same period.
“Pasco County is expected to grow employment by 200 percent, and that’s huge,” he said. Those workers won’t all be coming from Pasco County, he said. They’ll be heading to Pasco from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, too.
“People are going to go where the jobs are. That’s what we’re seeing,” McKinney said.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you consider a no-build?’
“This is the no-build, he said, pointing to a graphic projecting future traffic congestion.
“The no-build says you’re ‘fine with 375,000 cars traveling everyday on I-4 (Interstate 4)’, when it only has the capacity of handling just over 125,000.
“It’s says, ‘We’re OK with the downtown interchange only being able to handle 325,000 cars,’ when it can only handle 175,000.
“That’s the challenge that we’re dealing with. That’s the problem that we’re trying to solve,” McKinney said.
The Tampa Bay Express project grew out of the Tampa Interstate Study that started back in the 1980s, McKinney said.
“This plan looked out into the future. What’s the development that’s going to be going on in the region? What’s the congestion pattern? Where are people going to go to work, what they’re going to do for fun, and how are we going to manage all of that traffic?
“How do get these people to move around, to make sure this region is economically viable and able to take on the challenges?
“If you’ve lived here, you know that we’ve widened I-4. We just completed I-275 widening. We did the Crosstown Connector project. All of those projects were part of this Tampa Interstate Study.
“It’s an evolving document,” he said.
“Every time you go and build a new piece of it, you look at the traffic and development patterns, and you update your document.
“What we’re going to be doing is adding express lanes, within the interstate, that will be tolled,” he said.
There will still be the same number of general purpose lanes as there are now, but there also will be express lanes, which are tolled.
People who want to make a quicker trip will pay the toll.
For instance, someone who has been late to work repeatedly may use the toll lane to avoid being late again, he said. Or, it might be used by someone in a rush to pick up their child from day care or get to an important business meeting.
“What they’ve seen in Miami is that there is no real pattern for why people use them,” he said.
One thing they have noticed is that people are using them at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.
When asked why, many said they are doing that to avoid a potential collision with a wrong-way driver, McKinney said.
“The express lanes will be built, in a majority of cases, within the median that is there now,” he said. But, interchanges will need to be reconstructed.
The system is designed to be used for longer distances, such as getting from Brandon to the airport, or to Pinellas County.
There will be access points in the Gateway area of Pinellas County, in the Westshore area, at Tampa International Airport, at several places downtown Tampa, and in the general vicinity of the University of South Florida. There also will be access points in Brandon and Plant City.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you just spend this money on transit? You’re talking about a $3.3 billion project. You could get a lot of transit for that,’” he said.
Transit is important, and it is part of Hillsborough’s long-range transportation plan, but he added, “it’s not the one solution that fixes all of our problems.
“It needs to be a mix of managed lanes, as well as some sort of transit solution,” McKinney said.
Published August 17, 2016