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Transportation

Westshore Interchange Could Be Delayed As Pandemic Halts Road Projects

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Local legislators say the $1.4 billion Westshore interchange in Tampa could be among 77 road projects that could be cut or delayed.

State transportation officials cut or delayed 77 road projects from a five-year plan as revenues dropped with more Floridians working remotely and people delaying travel plans because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Department of Transportation this year had to make up $763 million from lost gas taxes, rental car fees, toll collections and other state and federal sources.

Stacy Miller, assistant secretary for finance and administration at the department, said Tuesday the affected road projects involve joint ventures with airports, seaports and local governments.

“Our goal was to retain all active projects to their completion, whether those were engineering or construction projects,” Miller told members of the Senate Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee. “We have not impacted any active projects at this time. And we don't anticipate any changes.”

Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, expressed concern that one of the 23 projects delayed will be the $1.4 billion Westshore interchange in Tampa.

Hooper said he anticipates hearing a lot of “anger” in pushing back the interchange work from the 2023-2024 fiscal year to the 2025-2026 fiscal year, while a rebuild goes forward of the Howard Frankland Bridge linking St. Petersburg with Tampa.

“In that five-year span, I cannot imagine what traffic congestion and mobility is going to be like with a rebuilt bridge, with probably eight or 10 lanes of incoming traffic, and southbound traffic, coming into an already congested Westshore interchange, where Tampa International Airport turns off a lot of the shopping and business,” Hooper said.

Miller said employees of the department and its District 7 office, which oversees the Tampa area, are trying to determine if there are ways to address the potential traffic issues during the gap years.

“We are working to try to creatively figure out a way to potentially advance that project in the future,” Miller said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis last spring pushed transportation officials to take advantage of reduced traffic during the pandemic to speed up road and bridge projects. The Howard Frankland Bridge was among the projects DeSantis directed the Department of Transportation to accelerate.

The agency estimated more than 650 calendar days of construction were saved by advancing the projects, which included widening Southern Boulevard in western Palm Beach County, working on flyovers that are part of the I-4 “Ultimate” project in Orlando and construction of a “diverging diamond” interchange on Interstate 95 in Nassau County.

During Tuesday’s meeting, senators and Miller didn’t address three controversial toll-road projects in the five-year plan that are projected to require up to $101.7 million a year over the next decade.

The roads would extend the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County to Jefferson County near the Georgia border, extend Florida’s Turnpike from Wildwood to connect with the Suncoast Parkway and create a new road linking Polk and Collier counties. They are each undergoing needs determinations. Economic and environmental feasibility studies would be conducted if a need is found for any part of the roads.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, and Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, last week filed legislation (SB 1030 and HB 763) to remove the projects, which were a priority of former Senate President Bill Galvano, from state law.

The department has long used what is known as the five-year work program to map out projects.

In addition to the current-year impacts, the state agency faces a $2.91 billion reduction in revenue over the next five years, according to August projections presented Tuesday to the Senate panel.

Starting at $303.6 million in the current fiscal year, toll collections are expected to account for $1.558 billion of the hit to revenue through the 2025-2026 fiscal year. In the same time, the department is expected to be short another $1.097 billion in revenue generated by gas taxes, rental car surcharges, and motor-vehicle license fees, according to the projections.

Meanwhile, the state’s allotment for the current fiscal year through the federal Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST Act, was $1.8 billion, $258 million less than in prior years.

Partially offsetting the losses, the state department received $470 million in federal pandemic relief funding that is available until Sept. 30, 2024. Florida also received a separate $39 million non-recurring federal allocation.

As part of his proposed record $96.6 billion budget for the upcoming 2021-2022 fiscal year, DeSantis included $9.47 billion for the five-year work program. The budget DeSantis signed in June for the current fiscal year included $9.2 billion for the work program. Lawmakers will consider DeSantis’ proposed budget as they draw up a spending plan during the legislative session that starts March 2.

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