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St. Pete City Council lacks excitement for FDOT express lane plan

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

St. Pete City Council members didn’t seem too impressed with plans to ease congestion along some of the area’s most congested thoroughfares.

The Florida Department of Transportation has seven “starter” projects that could break ground within the next 3-5 years that would create pay-to-use express lanes on parts of Northbound I-275 between Gandy Boulevard and Fourth Street and 118 Avenue and then across the Howard Frankland Bridge into Tampa.

The $9 billion project also includes express lanes through Tampa along I-275, State Road 60 to the Veteran’s Expressway and parts of I-4. Later connections throughout the region would be added after the initial projects.

But the planned projects come with plenty of critics. Those appear to include some City Council members.

Jim Kennedy called the express lanes “Lexus Lanes,” noting that those who are better off financially may be the ones who benefit most from the lanes.

“Lanes the new availability is going to be one of those that, in my opinion, gives the impression that those with more money have more access … than those with less money,” Kennedy said.

It’s been reported that tolls for express lanes in Miami where officials say the program is going well are often near $10. There are even considerations to increase the maximum tolls from $10 to $14.

That’s certainly not a toll someone who works minimum wage would want to pay.

But Debbie Hunt, director of transportation development for FDOT, said those high tolls are not the norm.

“Occasionally, I’ve heard of like 3 or 4 times because congestion is horrific in that area,” Hunt said.

Instead, she says the average is far more reasonable, about $3-$4. She also pointed out that even if users couldn’t afford the toll lanes, those who can are freeing up space in the other lane.

In addition, it’s voluntary.

There were also concerns addressed that the express lanes don’t go far enough. Even in the longer-range plans the lanes don’t extend any further south than Gandy or any further west than 118th Avenue. That’s based on traffic patterns that show other areas of Pinellas County only suffer the type of congestion that would warrant express lanes about one hour a day.

That’s another problem for Kennedy, who noted those traffic patterns are likely to get worse as the years go by.

“So we have to wait until we have 3 or 4 hours of delay,” he asked. “That doesn’t seem to be the proactive way of doing it.”

But Kennedy’s concerns were the least of FDOT’s concerns. Council Chair Charlie Gerdes called the agency the “Department of Roads.”

“You are forced to just deal with roads because they won’t give you any other option,” Gerdes said.

He was referring to the state.

Gerdes launched into a story about his years in South Florida during law school and how people drove in bumper-to-bumper traffic at 80 miles per hour. Here, he said, people don’t know how to drive in traffic. They slow down at the first sign of congestion.

He said that of course with the disclaimer that it might not be the best idea for people in Tampa Bay to start driving like that.

He also talked about a more recent trip to South Florida where he chose not to fork over more than $6 to cruise along in the express lane there.

“For most of the trip, I was traveling the same speed as the express lane,” Gerdes said. “Guess what was to the west? There was this silver thing with a bunch of cars attached to it and it was going faster – oh it was a train!”

That was likely a dig on the somewhat recent failure of Greenlight Pinellas that would have given the county, yes, a train.

And St. Pete city council members aren’t the only ones concerned. In an op-ed in the Tampa Tribune last weekend, Tampa attorney Brian C. Willis lamented the plan, noting its high cost and lack of diversity in options. In his article, he called on more scrutiny of a project that spends an awful lot of money for just one transportation project.

Meanwhile, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority also presented to St. Pete City Council on their bleak financial forecast leading up to eventual insolvency.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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