TAMPA — A $2.5 billion plan to add express toll lanes to Tampa Bay freeways is a top goal in the next decade for state transportation officials.
Adding premium toll lanes alongside regular interstate traffic is an approach that already has reduced congestion on Interstate 95 in Miami, Florida Department of Transportation officials say, and they predict it will do the same at notorious bottlenecks on I-275 and I-4.
Average rush-hour travel speeds on I-95 have indeed improved, but the results aren’t all good: The speed of cars on northbound express lanes has repeatedly failed to meet state targets and accidents on toll lanes have led to gridlock on the freeway.
That leaves critics in Tampa skeptical that the investment in express lanes will pay off here because of the volume of traffic and a dearth of mass transit alternatives.
The local project has come under extra scrutiny recently because of a campaign by Tampa Heights residents who say a wider interstate will damage their revitalized neighborhood. The Tampa City Council has joined their effort.
“They’re going to put this massive highway in a place where it just doesn’t belong and they’re going to tax everyone to use it,” said Adam Metz, a transit advocate and Tampa resident.
Known as the Tampa Bay Express, online at tampabayexpress.com, the project also includes expansion of the I-275 and I-4 interchange – more commonly called “Malfunction Junction.” Express lanes also are planned for interstates in Orlando and Jacksonville, reflecting the transportation department’s shift toward tolls to fund expensive freeway projects.
“Tampa Bay Express is an integral part of reducing traffic congestion for everyone,” said Kris Carson, spokeswoman with transportation District 7 in Tampa. “Express lanes offer motorists a choice of a new transportation option and help with reliable travel times.”
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Already five years in operation, the seven miles of express lanes on I-95 in Miami may be a bellwether for how the two-tiered system will fare in Tampa Bay.
The lanes were created by converting underused car-pool lanes. To ensure that the express lanes live up to their name, the system dynamically updates toll amounts, raising the price during peak periods.
Paid through Sun Pass, tolls brought in more than $20 million during the 2013-14 fiscal year.
Transportation officials say all I-95 drivers have benefitted. State reports show the average northbound speed on regular roads during peak periods has risen from 18 to 35 mph since the lanes were introduced. Southbound drivers do even better, averaging 45 mph.
Drivers willing to pay the tolls, which can reach $10.50, get to their destination even faster with average speeds of 53 mph on northbound toll roads and 62 mph southbound.
But even with an increase in tolls to deter drivers, northbound express lanes have not met the state’s reliability target for speeds to remain above 45 mph at least 90 percent of the time.
An transportation department report blames that failure on “lane divers” who cut between plastic poles that divide the toll road from regular lanes and on traffic backups on connecting roads.
The report also highlights the stark difference in journey times for those who can afford the tolls.
Drivers on regular northbound lanes only exceed 45 mph about 10 percent of the time, down from almost 20 percent in 2013.
“They have sacrificed reliability of general purpose lanes to keep express lanes more reliable,” said Kevin Thurman, director of the pro-transit Connect Tampa Bay group.
Thurman also questions why the transportation department is planning to expand I-275 and I-4 when there is no plan to integrate mass transit into the area’s overall transportation network, as has happened in other cities where tolls have been added or are planned.
South Florida has Tri-Rail, a rail passenger service between West Palm Beach and Miami that runs parallel to I-95. Miami-Dade is also served by Metrorail, an elevated train network with 23 stations over a 24-mile rail network.
Both of those systems receive funding from the state, as does Orlando for its Sun Rail system.
“It’s a completely different night and day approach,” Thurman said.
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State transportation officials point out that express bus services use the toll roads in Miami. As a result of quicker journey times, ridership has risen 32 percent, said Yvette Ruiz-Paz, a spokesman for the department’s District Six office in Miami.
Express bus services run by transit agencies in Hillsborough and Pinellas could use the express lanes in a similar fashion. Any decision about other mass transit systems would have to come from local governments, likely after a 2016 referendum to raise sales tax by a half penny for transportation improvements.
“Mass transit planning and implementation is the responsibility of local government,” Carson said. “FDOT supports transit with capital such as buying buses.”
Critic of express lanes deride the system as “Lexus lanes,” and complain it creates a system where affluent drivers can cruise through bottlenecks while less well-off drivers stew in traffic.
The transportation department has a more upbeat description in its promotional video — “a new choice for a better commute.”
Steve Reich, a program director with Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida, said research has shown it’s not just wealthy drivers who use the express lanes.
More often, it’s an occasional luxury for drivers who need to be sure they arrive on tim, — as for trips to a job interview, for example, or hospital appointment.
“All the cheap stuff has been done,” Reich said. “The fact you’ve created this path that you can manage through pricing and keep it congestion free is no small accomplishment given how much it costs to add capacity in urban areas to the highway.”