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Friday, Dec 15, 2017
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No toll lanes north of downtown Tampa in three of four interstate proposals

TAMPA — Express lanes may not be coming to downtown Tampa after all. Or at least not to the stretch of Interstate 275 that goes north through Bearss Avenue.

Florida Department of Transportation officials told about 50 people at a meeting Monday that the controversial express toll lanes previously planned north of downtown are not a part of most options for the I-275 and Interstate 4 interchange.

"We tried to take the feedback from the community, the concerns they had, the things they'd like to see . . . and incorporate those into these concepts," said Ed McKinney, DOT program management administrator.

For years, those who live in historic downtown neighborhoods have battled with state transportation officials over the 90 miles of toll lanes planned for Tampa Bay. Previous proposals involved buying additional rights of way, bulldozing historic buildings and adversely impacting minorities in Tampa Heights, V.M. Ybor and other neighborhoods.

Significant backlash last year caused the DOT to put the $6 billion plan on hold. Since then, the department has hired new staff, organized more community meetings and reopened a federal study. It will re-evaluate parts of the project, including the controversial interchange known as "malfunction junction."

As part of the study, tolls are not guaranteed on express lanes from West Shore through downtown Tampa up north toward Bearss. Instead, those lanes would have limited entrance and exit ramps, meaning they would be intended for regional travel over longer distances.

Here are the four options the DOT presented Monday for the downtown interchange and the span of I-275 that goes north toward Bearss Avenue.

• Option one: The closest version to the original plan, which has express lanes all along Interstates 4, 275 and 75. This option completely rebuilds the interchange for I-275 and I-4, straightening out the path and eliminating some lane mergers.

• Option two: This also rebuilds the downtown interchange to make structural improvements. However, it eliminates the express lanes on I-275 north of downtown.

• Options three and four: Neither involves rebuilding the downtown interchange. Instead, they add elevated express lanes from around North Boulevard through N 22nd St. The main difference between three and four is whether the express lanes are built to the north or south of the existing interstate. These two options are also considerably less expensive than rebuilding the interchange, McKinney said.

Tolls are under reconsideration with all four options. If the express lanes are not tolled, they would still have limited entrance and exit ramps spread out over longer distances.

With three of the options presented Monday, the express toll lane focus would shift to Interstate 75. Toll lanes were planned for I-75 under the now-defunct Tampa Bay Express plan, but would become the predominant north-south option in the department's rebranded Tampa Bay Next initiative.

"What we've heard consistently is that neighborhood preservation is important," said DOT consultant Danielle Moran. "These are the options for a smaller footprint."

All four plans involve adding a second lane to the exit ramp on southbound I-275 toward I-4 — a well-known traffic headache.

After the presentation, community members gathered around the four renderings and debated the merits of each. Would any of them eliminate the space previously set aside for rail? Where would the entrances and exits be? How would traffic flow through the neighboring communities?

"I don't like any of them," said V.M. Ybor resident Chris Vela, a vocal opponent of the expansion.

"I don't love any of them either, but they're better than they were," said Seminole Heights resident and Hillsborough County Commission candidate Kimberly Overman.

The two debated with Commissioner Pat Kemp about whether the elevated option would solve some concerns or if it would bring new flaws. They tried to decipher the complicated maps, with their heaps of color-coded lanes and lines.

"If you look at all of these systems and how they work together, we can find a better solution than just widening a highway," Overman said. "And (DOT is) starting to listen to that."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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