CLEARWATER — Driving the length of Florida’s most densely populated county has long been an exercise in frustration.
Interstate 275, the lone nonstop road out of St. Petersburg, brings motorists only halfway up Pinellas County before veering east toward Tampa. It’s then a five-mile haul east to U.S. 19, the main north-south thoroughfare in the north of Pinellas.
Now, state officials are rushing ahead plans to make that a seamless, stop-light free trip.
Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that work will begin in 2017 on a $337 million expressway to link I-275 and U.S. 19 with elevated tollways. The five-year project, known as the Gateway Express, also includes a link from I-275 to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. The project was not expected to be funded for another 15 years.
Scott made his announcement at the Pinellas Realtor’s Association on Ulmerton Road, one of the county’s most congested thoroughfares. He said the new roads would ease congestion for residents and businesses. Florida Department of Transportation officials estimate it will save drivers between nine and 13 minutes during rush-hour commutes.
“Advancing the Gateway Express Project right here in Pinellas County is going to mean more jobs; it will mean more people to move here; it’s going to continue to improve our environment,” Scott said. “This will allow the express lanes to be available for use 10 to 20 years earlier.”
It’s the second time in four months that Scott, who is campaigning for another term as governor, has visited the backyard of likely gubernatorial opponent Charlie Crist to announce major spending on roads. In November, he appeared at a mobile home park to publicize an extra $4.8 million being spent to speed up construction of the long-running $112 million project to widen and add bridges to U.S 19 between State Road 60 and Whitney Road.
Scott’s proposed state budget for 2015 includes a record $8.8 billion for transportation, a $200 million increase over this year with $3.8 billion allocated for highway projects.
The new link to U.S. 19 would be along 118th Avenue North with an elevated tollway and toll-free roads at ground level. It also includes a spur to the airport along a new road that will link up with Roosevelt Boulevard north of Ulmerton Road and connect with the Bayside Bridge.
The bulk of funding for the project will come from the Federal Highway Administration, which is contributing $153 million. Pinellas County will contribute $53 million from Penny for Pinellas funds, with the state providing the remainder.
When complete, the project would make it easier for residents in north county to commute to the Gateway area, one of the county’s main employment centers, and mean less congestion on some of the county’s busiest roads, FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad said.
“Pinellas County is very congested; there are not a lot of north-south, east-west corridors,” Prasad said. “You’ve got to make sure you have a good connection for people to move back and forth rather than sit in traffic for half an hour or an hour.”
As far back as 1999, the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce identified the lack of a contiguous north-south expressway as an handicap for the county’s economy, former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker said. The project is also listed as the top highway priority of the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization, a planning group that prioritizes road and other transportation projects.
“We’re going to be able to cross the Skyway Bridge and not have to stop at a stop light until you are in Palm Harbor,” Baker said. “If transportation is working, then the economy is healthy and successful.”
The Gateway area could also be the site of a light-rail station if Pinellas residents in November approve a penny sales tax increase to help pay for the $2.2 billion Greenlight plan to expand the county’s bus service by 65 percent, construct bus-only lanes and build a 24-mile light-rail network linking Clearwater, Largo and St. Petersburg.
Greenlight proponents said the transit plan was devised to take advantage of roads proposed in the MPO priority list including the Gateway Express.
“To me, it’s complementary,” said Chris Steinocher, CEO of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and a leader of the Yes for Greenlight campaign. “You get great roads and you have great mass transportation.”