A Dandy Two-Road Solution For Gandy

January 25, 2009

The Tampa Tribune

Gandy Boulevard is jammed with cars, some going to area businesses and homes and others commuting to Pinellas and other distant destinations.

Solving the traffic jam has perplexed traffic engineers for years. Ideas to widen Gandy or build a parallel expressway have met strong community resistance.

A bypass would eliminate homes, and a wider road would consume parking lots and destroy what's left of the small-town feel of the neighborhood.

But an idea cautiously put forward by the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority offers the potential for majority acceptance. The concept is to build an elevated road above Gandy for fast traffic and redesign the street-level road to better serve local traffic and pedestrians.

This approach would be good for Gandy businesses and good for regional commerce. It could cut 15 minutes or more off the southern route from Hillsborough to Pinellas, which would make Tampa and St. Petersburg seem closer together, something that should particularly please the Tampa Bay Rays.

Several aspects of this proposal are remarkable. One is how the authority, under the leadership of former state Sen. Jim Hargrett and Executive Director Joseph Waggoner, has drawn ordinary citizens into the process. They are listening to everyone who has an opinion and taking all concerns seriously.

In the past, advocates of new roads have often tried to ram through their projects without regard for neighborhood concerns. This is a refreshing contrast.

Already the state Department of Transportation is working on changes to make Gandy safer and more attractive. The adding of a solid median, turn lanes and street lights is an improvement but doesn't much help commuters. Gandy needs much more.

The new suggestion has the additional benefit of being able to pay for itself through tolls. And it requires no additional right of way.

The obvious objection to the concept of an elevated highway is that it would be a monstrosity dominating the landscape. Throughout the country, the territory under railroads and highways is typically dank, uninviting real estate.

Gandy residents and business owners rightly insist that their community not be sacrificed just to move more people through at a higher speed.

The Expressway's concept is to make the elevated road high enough so that plenty of light is available below. It would be only two lanes, one in each direction, making it much smaller than the elevated portions of the expressway from downtown Tampa to Brandon.

The sleek, single-pier design of that bridge makes it appear from the ground to be half as wide as it really is, says Martin Stone, the authority's planning director.

The bridge has won numerous awards for design and function, the most recent from the Federal Highway Administration for outstanding project of the year. The Expressway staff is especially proud of that award because no federal money was used for the project.

A similar creative solution is being offered for Gandy. Say, if you want to go to St. Petersburg from South Tampa, you could get on the elevated lane at the Selmon Expressway at Dale Mabry and travel at highway speed over the congestion below. Your toll, perhaps, 50 cents, would pay for the road and the improvements below.

At ground level on Gandy, large traffic circles would replace stoplights at two major intersections. Fishermen, boaters and others needing access to the shore at the start of the Gandy Bridge would have an easier time crossing Gandy Boulevard.

During a hurricane threat, both elevated lanes could be converted to eastbound, which would help Pinellas evacuate faster and free up local streets for Tampa residents also needing to move inland.

Waggoner says that the authority is not trying to sell the idea, just offering it as a possible solution.

His offer is a user-paid, non-intrusive way to solve both a regional and local highway problem. It's worth a very close look. We like what we see.


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