CLEARWATER — Most of the land has been acquired and contract specifications nearly are ready to go out as the $337-million central Pinellas County expressway moves toward construction.
The two-prong Gateway Express highway project will connect U.S. 19 to I-275 along the 118th Avenue North east-west corridor, and Bayside Bridge to the new expressway, going north and south, with elevated roads to bypass traffic signals and congestion.
Once completed in about seven years, the toll roads should allow drivers to save nine to 13 minutes in their rush-hour commutes for about 75 cents, according to Florida Department of Transportation estimates.
“If you do it every single day, that’s a big savings” in time, DOT director of Transportation Development Debbie Hunt said.
In addition, she said, it will provide direct access to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, saving time and traffic hassles for air travelers.
The expressway project, announced a year ago by Gov. Rick Scott during his re-election campaign, was not expected to be funded for another 15 years. It will provide relief in one of the most congested traffic areas in the county, amid a cluster of highways linking Clearwater and St. Petersburg, and Pinellas County to the Howard Frankland Bridge to Tampa and beyond.
Hunt said the expressways have been under study for 20 years. The state has acquired about 75 percent of the right-of-way it needs, estimated to be $93.5 million, “so we’re in a pretty good place,” Hunt said.
Construction bids are expected to be awarded in the fall, and work is scheduled to start in late summer 2017 and will take about five years. Motorists will encounter road realignments and readjusted access points to businesses and side streets during construction, Hunt said.
“We’ll do everything we can to maintain existing lanes of traffic. It may not look like it does today, but we’re pretty good at maintaining access during construction,” she said.
DOT already has met with neighbors and property owners, and plans more meetings as the project moves along, she said. “We’ll have pretty extensive networks set up to let people know what’s going on,” she said.
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The Gateway Expressway routes will allow motorists to drive from the Sunshine Skyway to North Pinellas County or to Tampa without hitting a traffic signal. They also will allow for rapid transit for buses.
“It will ultimately tie in to a bigger system that will allow folks in Pinellas County to travel from U.S. 19 all the way to Georgia without hitting a signal,” Hunt said, connecting directly to interstate highways or other express roads to move around the state.
“One of things we’ve heard for so many years is Pinellas County is kind of that county that is hidden because there is no easy way to get there,” Hunt said. “This gives them much better access to Pinellas and around the state.”
The toll roads will run along and, at some points, above existing lanes in the 118th Avenue corridor and from the Bayside Bridge. The expressway includes a fly-over at US 19 and 118th Avenue, where it becomes Bryan Dairy Road, leading east to the elevated lanes above 118th Avenue and to the existing ramps to I-275. The three-mile stretch now has three traffic lights and bogs down at morning and afternoon rush hour.
The Bayside Bridge route runs along 49th Street and veers through the former Sunshine Speedway property, which DOT already owns, and connects to the new east-west expressway link. It includes a flyover near the airport and Roosevelt Boulevard.
Motorists may choose to use the expressways and pay the toll, or to remain on the existing ground-level roads at no cost. There will be no toll booths. Instead, drivers will need a Sun Pass to use the highway, Hunt said.
The tolls are the key to paying the operating and maintenance cost of the highways, Hunt said. “Our state transportation budget is only so big,” she said. “This will be the wave of the future around the country.”
Tolls roads, such as the Veteran’s Expressway in Tampa and Pasco County, are popular with drivers who prefer to avoid traffic stops and signals, Hunt said. “The people who like it are going to use it; the people who don’t like it, don’t have to use it,” she said.
The bulk of funding to build the project will come from the Federal Highway Administration, which is contributing $153 million. Pinellas County will provide $53 million from Penny for Pinellas funds, with the state providing the remainder.
The Gateway Expressway construction will begin about the same time the improvements to Ulmerton Road, in the same area, and the $83 million Gandy Boulevard project in northeast St. Petersburg are completed, Hunt said. The elevated Gandy road project will provide non-stop access for motorists from east of Fourth Street to the Gandy Bridge and I-275.