Howard Frankland span replacement could spell transit improvements over Tampa Bay

05/07/13 Janelle Irwin
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The Northbound section of the Howard Frankland Bridge will need to be replaced sometime in the next decade or so. That leaves a host of options for transit agencies on both sides of Tampa Bay.

During a stakeholder meeting in Pinellas County Tuesday, the Florida Department of Transportation’s district planning manager, Ming Gao said the plans could include some premium transit options.

“We know the in-kind replacement is around $367 million. You’ve got the transit option; you’re talking about $1.3 billion.”

Possibilities include dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit, express lanes or rail. The dedicated lanes could be built on their own right-of-way separate from the vehicular bridges. Other options include a stacked bridge – though that option is less likely. Whatever the new bridge looks like, Gao says will be up to local transit agencies and residents.

“This is not a bridge for the department, not the bridge for just Pinellas, not the bridge just for Hillsborough. It’s the bridge for the Tampa Bay area. So, we have to decide what we want – how we’re going to utilize it for a connection for both sides of the bay.”

Transit officials in Pinellas County have been working on a plan for improved transit that includes rail. But an effort to fund rail in Hillsborough County was killed by voters in 2010. Gao says no matter what the Hillsborough and Pinellas transit authorities decide, the northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge will get replaced.

“But if you’re looking at also transit – all the other features – local need to participate in funding that. Obviously, federal is always a partner in doing any projects.”

Right now 135,000 cars drive across the bridge everyday. That number is expected to skyrocket to 235,000 by 2035. Maintenance costs on the older northbound span are estimated to exceed replacement costs within the next ten years. That leaves the door wide open to increase capacity on the bridge to keep up with growth. Gao says one option includes tolled express lanes called managed lanes.

“Transit [agencies] like PSTA or HART can actually run express bus on those managed lanes so they can bring people in and out at a very reliable time. As you know, many people complain about riding [buses] – you never know when [buses] will come and you never know when we will get there, but with a managed lane you can get there at a predictable time and reliable time.”

Some regions comparable to the Tampa Bay area use high occupancy vehicle express lanes instead of a pay-per-use system. But Gao said that option is not on the table right now.

“When we put managed lanes in our system, we still give people options to travel in the non-toll lane and another benefit of tolling is it, kind of, [takes] away traffic from the general purpose lane – that’s the non-toll lane – because it will free up some capacity because people make the choice to get in the managed lane.”

There could still be push-back from people who think that’s unfair for drivers who can’t afford the extra expense just to save a few minutes. Dan Harvey Jr. is a vocal St. Petersburg activist. He says that’s why you would link it with mass transportation.

“The mass transportation is funded pretty heavily by the government. Where only 20% of the box comes from the toll that you pay to ride a bus or mass rail. So, you’d have to make sure that those folks who can’t afford what we’re talking about – they could take the mass transportation.”

Pinellas County’s transit goals include better bus service by adding higher frequency and more efficient routes. One possibility could connect Pinellas County and Tampa with rail across the Howard Frankland. Infrastructure to support that would need to be built either next to one of the existing bridge spans or in between them. Gao from the Florida Department of Transportation says that might be the way to go.

“From the cost standpoint and also from the environmental impact standpoint, that’s probably the best option.”

A new bridge span on either side of the existing structure could cost up to $30 million dollars more and would create a much larger footprint over Tampa Bay. Building the new span between the existing ones could save as many as 28 acres of seagrass beds. Environmental preservation is one of five goals laid out by the state transportation agency. The Sierra Club’s Phil Compton is glad for the consideration. But he’s also excited about continuing conversations about giving travelers more transit options.

“It’s great to see that there really are a lot of options and it’s really up to the people of Tampa Bay on both sides of the bay to decide what we want because we can do anything we want.”

There will be another stakeholder meeting at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Hillsborough Community College Dale Mabry campus. After that, the Florida Department of Transportation will work on streamlining its plans. Construction is expected to begin by 2025. The newer southbound section of the Howard Frankland Bridge won’t need to be replaced until about 2040.

More photos from the meeting

Previous coverage of Tampa Bay transit

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