The announcement this week that the state will build elevated toll roads connecting the northern and southern parts of Pinellas County is certainly welcome news for motorists who travel that stretch of Interstate 275 and are forced to endure congested roads to reach U.S. 19.
But it shouldn’t be viewed as a long-term solution to the transit problems in Pinellas, the state’s most densely populated county.
We think the bulk of the solution rests with the comprehensive Greenlight Pinellas initiative headed to the ballot in November. Greenlight’s expanded bus service and future light-rail line will give people choices beyond climbing behind the wheel of a car, and it will position the county for a future that can accommodate growth without the need for major road construction.
The toll road project, known as the Gateway Express, has been on the books for years. But Gov. Rick Scott, in a tough race for re-election, traveled to Pinellas on Monday to say the $337 million project had been accelerated and will now begin in 2017, more than a decade ahead of schedule.
When completed, motorists will have the choice to travel uninterrupted along an elevated tollway linking I-275 with U.S. 19, with a direct link north off that tollway to reach the Bayside Bridge and St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
The elevated road connecting the interstate with U.S, 19 will rise above 118th Avenue, which will remain operational for those not wanting to pay the toll. The money will come from federal, state and county sources, with the county portion being $53 million.
With a budget surplus to work with this year, Scott is taking to the road to announce transportation projects. It is notable that in Orlando on Monday he tacitly acknowledged the need for more options. He announced that he wants to spend $213 million for a transportation hub at Orlando International Airport that includes a rail line.
Last month, the governor was in Pinellas to say the state would pay contractors an extra $3.2 million to accelerate the completion of improvements underway to U.S. 19 near Clearwater.
It doesn’t matter whether politics may be a factor in Scott’s commitments. They are good news for Pinellas County and Florida.
Less road congestion makes communities more efficient and economical places to work and more pleasant places to live. And it benefits the environment.
This is the rationale behind Greenlight, which is meant to complement the road system, not compete with it. People will still have the option to commute alone in their cars. But for others, there will be choices.
There isn’t enough pavement to eliminate all the congestion on Pinellas roads. But with the improvements announced Monday, and with the prospect of the Greenlight transit system, traveling anywhere in the county could become a lot less stressful.