Elevate Gandy, lower congestion

Published Friday, February 13, 2009

Easing traffic congestion on Gandy Boulevard in Hillsborough County has always been tough, because Gandy serves two purposes. It is a key connection between Hillsborough and Pinellas that attracts heavy, pass-through traffic, but it is also a commercial corridor for the neighborhoods of South Tampa. Now a proposal by the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority might help the Gandy serve those distinct purposes. It calls for an elevated bypass over the Gandy and improvements to make the lower boulevard more convenient to local traffic.

The concept is promising. The authority would build a two-lane span over the Gandy — one lane eastbound, another westbound. Commuters coming from Pinellas could drive from the bridge to the Crosstown Expressway, and continue on to downtown Tampa, I-75 and the eastern Hillsborough suburbs of Brandon, without having to endure a single traffic signal. Commuters from Tampa would have an unimpeded shot across the bridge into Pinellas. Both lanes could run eastbound if a hurricane threatens, making them vital evacuation routes for Pinellas and South Tampa.

The elevated roadway would capture much of the pass-through traffic that clogs Gandy today. Much would depend on what the expressway authority would charge in tolls for the bypass. Many motorists would be happy to pay 50 cents or so for the time (and gas) they would save by shooting over Gandy Boulevard and toward their destination. Officials say about 40 percent of the 45,000 cars now on Gandy every day is pass-through traffic.

The authority would redesign the lower boulevard to make the commercial thoroughfare blend in better with the surrounding neighborhoods. New bus lanes, traffic circles and pedestrian-friendly street-scaping would help revive Gandy as a shopping district. By removing the cut-through traffic, officials would make the Gandy more inviting for people who work or live nearby.

The concept has two elements essential for any Gandy fix. First, it gets the pass-through traffic off the Gandy. That will reduce not only the traffic load but the high speeds that intimidate local residents from using the boulevard for their routine shopping. The plan also addresses the desire to retain both businesses and homes in the Gandy corridor. Previous proposals to reduce pass-through traffic cost too much or required taking dozens of homes to build an alternate route.

The expressway authority will need to allay residents' concerns that an elevated road would be too noisy or so unsightly it would harm their property values. Those are legitimate concerns. At the same time, residents need to acknowledge that Gandy in its current state is a scar on their neighborhood. There is the promise here of balancing the neighborhood's needs with a better transit system for the region. Officials should explore the concept with the goal of putting something concrete on the table.