Spiffy Gandy in bull's-eye

By Mark Holan, Times correspondent

Published Wednesday, April 29, 2009

GANDY — New landscaping and other massive beautification efforts along Gandy Boulevard could be destroyed if a proposed elevated toll road becomes reality — a situation that some say would throw away taxpayer money during rough economic times.

The Florida Department of Transportation embarked on a $20 million project in January 2008 to widen and landscape Gandy, making it a four-lane divided highway between Dale Mabry and the Gandy Bridge.

Workers are nearing the end of the project, which includes a median 30 feet wide with $162,000 worth of landscaping and a $121,000 irrigation system. Another $102,000 is going toward decorative crosswalks and more than $1.1 million for "aesthetic lighting" on both sides of the street. The work is expected to be completed late this summer.

But another agency — the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority — said last month it will consider building a two-lane elevated toll road above Gandy's new median. The overpass would connect the Tampa side of the bridge to the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway, possibly within five years.

That would require building support piers in the new median, among other construction work that could turn fresh landscaping to rubble and force those decorative lights to shine amid the concrete pilings of a roadway.

Expressway authority spokeswoman Susan Chrzan said it's impossible to know how much of the DOT work might be damaged.

"We haven't got to that level of detail at all," she said. "We will try to save everything we can. We are looking at costs all the time."

The cost of elevated lanes, estimated at $112 million to $138 million, would be paid by the expressway authority, which finances its work with tolls.

Opponents of the overpass — many of them business owners who fear it would eliminate drive-by customers — say building in the median would waste tax dollars at a time when government agencies are slashing services due to budget shortfalls.

A few have speculated that the DOT and the expressway authority have worked together to build the elevated toll road, a long talked-about project that residents have shot down in the past.

"The expressway authority has been trying to do this for years," said St. Petersburg resident Donna Miller, who has commercial real estate interests on Gandy. Now, she said, "the infrastructure has been paid at taxpayer expenses."

As part of the DOT's project, utility and drainage improvements were moved to each side of Gandy, said DOT spokeswoman Kristen Carson.

The goal, she said, was "maximizing the DOT's right-of-way, so we are not precluding future improvements."

The wide median, which replaced a turn lane on Gandy, is primarily a safety feature to control access across oncoming traffic, Carson said. Even with the elevated toll road rising from the median, she said, that safety function would remain intact.

The DOT supports the proposal for elevated lanes, Carson said. If it goes forward, "the expressway authority would be responsible to pay for the new project, but we would not insist on any money back," she said. "The elevated project will continue to be coordinated to minimize expenditures and changes to the extent possible."

Both the DOT and the expressway authority have talked of building a toll road in the area for years.

The DOT considered building elevated lanes on the north side of Gandy as far back as 2000. The plan was scrapped amid protest from surrounding residents and business owners.

Former expressway authority executive director Pat McCue proposed erecting elevated lanes above the median in 2002. That plan was shelved as the agency concentrated on a longer elevated segment of reversible lanes east of downtown to Brandon.

Then in June, expressway authority board members approved a yearlong, $1 million process to begin planning some kind of connector linking the Selmon Expressway with the Gandy Bridge. By then, the DOT project was already under way.

The expressway authority unveiled the most recent plan in mid April during a meeting that more than 50 attended, many of them opposed to the plan.

Proponents, however, have said the road would help traffic flow, take pressure off local roads and serve as a hurricane evacuation route from Pinellas County.

A public hearing on the proposed elevated lanes is set for July 21, and the agency hopes to reach a decision on the project by September, Chrzan said. Work could take up to two years. For planning purposes, the authority is assuming a 2014 opening.

Mikeael Eskildsen, who lives with Miller, is hosting a meeting to gather opposition to the proposal. The meeting is at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the store Eskildsen owns, Scan Design Furniture, 4221 W Gandy Blvd. He is circulating a petition and says he has more than 2,000 signatures.


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