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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Price tag for Gateway Express road project: $454 million

— With much fanfare, Gov. Rick Scott announced in February that the state would in 2017 start construction on a $337 million expressway linking Interstate 275 and U.S. 19, advancing the unfunded project forward by as much as 20 years.

Just five months later, Florida Department of Transportation officials say the new route, which will include elevated toll roads, will cost about $454 million, $116 million more than first announced. Most of the extra expense is from buying right-of-way along the route, a cost estimated at $93.5 million.

DOT officials said project costs have risen marginally and right-of-way costs were omitted from Scott's announcement because they already were in DOT's budget.

“We already had right-of-way programmed,” spokeswoman Kris Carson said. “We needed money to advance construction; that's why just the construction cost was given.”

But using information supplied by DOT, the cost of the construction phase widely was reported as being the total cost of the expressway in February. A news release from the governor's office also touted the project as costing “nearly $338 million.”

DOT officials revealed the cost of right-of-way purchases to the Pinellas County Commission at a workshop Tuesday. They also announced that the toll to drive elevated sections to avoid stoplights will be 75 cents, and that the five-year construction schedule also could make life complicated for the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.

One spur of the expressway that links to the Bayside Bridge runs around the southwest corner of the airport. DOT officials have requested that the Federal Aviation Authority conduct a study to see if elevated sections of the road would hamper aircraft approaches.

The study, which would highlight possible hazards, is expected to be completed soon, but DOT officials said they expect intermittent closures of some runways at the airport.

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DOT already has altered the design of the expressway to minimize impact on the airport, including relocating lighting, overhead signs and electronic message boards, said Debbie Hunt, DOT director of development.

Airport Director Noah Lagos said he expects the airport's primary runway will be unaffected, but a secondary runway may have to be closed from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. during a period of six to eight weeks.

That should not impact airport operations, but Lagos said it will be up to the FAA to decide what hazards construction presents to approaching aircraft.

“This is somewhat new territory for me as well,” Lagos said. “As far as height goes, they will come back and say what the impacts are.”

The expressway also could change some of the airport's long-term plans. The airport's master plan proposed extending Runway 422, but that would take it closer to the expressway.

A proposal to convert Runway 927 into a taxiway in 2019 also could be accelerated. The airport is in talks with DOT to find $5.3 million to cover the cost of the conversion.

“A linchpin to make this project work is that runway has to go out of service,” Lagos said.

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The advancement of the Gateway Express also raised concerns that the new road would conflict with a light-rail station planned as part of Greenlight Pinellas, the $2.2 billion mass transit plan that goes before voters in November.

DOT officials reassured commissioners that they have been in talks with Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority officials to dovetail their plans.

“We went back and re-did our design to elevate that overpass,” Hunt said. “It will stay in our plans regardless of whether Greenlight Pinellas passes this time or next time.”

Authority CEO Brad Miller said the two plans are now in sync but the light-rail station likely would be separated from the airport by the elevated expressway. “If you get off rail with luggage it would no longer be convenient to walk over to the gate,” he said. “We'll probably operate a shuttle bus to get you to the gate.”

The link from I-275 to U.S. 19 would be along 118th Avenue North, with an elevated toll road and toll-free roads at ground level. The airport spur will link with Roosevelt Boulevard north of Ulmerton Road and connect with the Bayside Bridge.

Most of the money will come from the Federal Highway Administration and DOT. Pinellas County is contributing roughly $60 million from Penny for Pinellas funds.

The new road is scheduled to open in 2022 and shave 13 minutes from rush-hour commutes, officials say. “It improves mobility for the region and overall capacity for the region,” Hunt said. “It relieves traffic congestion.”

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