In 2012, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) informed the MPO that bids on projects around the state were coming in lower than expected and that FDOT had extra (that’s right-extra!) money for transportation projects. Turns out, they had just about enough to fund improvements to Gandy Boulevard from 4th Street North to 16th Street North. We got with our colleagues throughout the Tampa Bay area and quickly obtained consensus that our project was a regional priority and should be the project for FDOT to apply the additional funding. We added the project to the regional priority list and four years later, the construction on Gandy Blvd. from 4th Street to 16th Street is not only underway, but ahead of schedule! When it opens in the spring of 2017, drivers will be able to pass over 16th Street, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and 4th Street without having to wait for a traffic signal. Anyone who has driven through that complicated, congested series of intersections can understand what a relief this will be for drivers going through this area. But it’s not just for cars; the project will also include sidewalks, bicycle lanes and accommodations for a future trail facility, to help people get around more safely without having to drive. This part is critical because the existing non-motorized transportation facilities in this area are lacking, to say the very least.
On the Hillsborough side of the bay, many drivers are familiar with the stop-and-go drive along Gandy to make it from the bridge to the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) has been making the rounds (including a stop at the Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area (TMA) Leadership Group meeting last month), getting the word out about a project they are planning that will provide a direct, tolled connection between the Gandy Bridge and the Crosstown. The Selmon Extension will consist of an elevated toll lane in each direction to whisk drivers and transit riders above Gandy to the Crosstown, while maintaining the existing toll-free lanes on the ground. Combined with the Selmon Connector (linking the Crosstown to I-4) that opened in 2014, this project will provide a direct connection from the Gandy Bridge to the interstate highway system. THEA is planning to have this project under construction in 2017 and open to traffic in 2020.
With construction either planned or underway along Gandy Blvd. on both sides of the bay, a key question remains…what to do about the segment in between? The traffic signal at Gandy and Brighton Bay Blvd. NE (see map below) will be right in between two long stretches of roadway where the cars will be traveling at a high rate of speed without having to stop. This situation could lead to a substantial increase in crashes when the improvements on both sides are complete. Potentially making the situation worse, the corridor will likely draw increased traffic in general with the interstate construction that will likely be underway in 2018 (Gandy being the logical alternate). The MPO’s Long Range Transportation Plan calls for the construction of an overpass at the Brighton Bay Boulevard intersection, creating a stoplight-free drive from Grand Blvd. in Pinellas Park, all the way to the interstate system. While definitely a benefit for commuters and beach-oriented tourists, with this roadway being a key hurricane evacuation corridor, the prospect of having this access-controlled facility completed holds great promise for emergency planners as well. However, this project is currently the lowest priority roadway capacity project on the MPO’s adopted priority list, meaning it will not feasibly receive funding until after 2030.
Each year, the MPO Board reevaluates its priority projects for state and federal funding. Within the ever-changing environment of transportation funding and needs, we must regularly reconsider what projects we are funding and when. When the MPO developed its current priority list, the Selmon Extension was on Hillsborough’s wish list, but not moving forward so there was little sense of urgency with the Brighton Bay intersection. In addition, Derby Lane is being discussed as being a prime redevelopment opportunity and could be a potential location for a future Tampa Bay Rays stadium, further complicating mobility in this area.
When developing a list of priorities this year, the MPO Board will have another opportunity to reconsider both the types of projects we are choosing fund, as well as the order in which we fund them. Strategic gaps in the system that provide direct economic and community value today and into the future require careful consideration. After all, as is evident with the various development patterns throughout Pinellas County – from walkable downtowns, to the grid-patterned roadways in southern Pinellas, to the gated communities in our northern areas – the transportation decisions we make today, affect our communities for years to come.