New Beltway Proposed to Skirt Tampa

Interstate 75

It's been less than 20 years since Interstate 75 was completed, making a quick drive down Florida's Gulf Coast possible. But burgeoning growth along that corridor has meant traffic tie-ups during most rush hours.

Now, Hillsborough County's Expressway Authority is getting ready to unveil an old plan. It would create a new superhighway from the Sunshine Skyway exit on I-75 in Manatee County, swinging east through now-virgin land.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman has spoken with authority members for at least five years about the plan. He says he was surprised that it's now being readied for public comment at next week's commission meeting. Norman says it would keep thousands of cars that are driving from say, Orlando to Sarasota from having to go through Tampa.

NORMAN: If you ran a north-south road between Plant City and Brandon, and put access points, you could get the commuters to get on this loop system, instead of actually having to widen the roads in those communities.

Commissioner Norman says at least part of it may be a toll road, since the pot of money to build major highways has been shrinking. And running it through what is now mostly pasture means less has to be spent on purchasing the land.

NORMAN: Not only would we save hundreds of millions of dollars from the aspect of not having to widen roads where there are businesses and homes, and whatever already established. We could take this road system where we basically have fields now. You don't have that type development. You could save that money and build it quicker.

Norman foresees the road connecting to I-4, and then continuing north to the Suncoast Parkway in Pasco County.

But some people are concerned that new highways contribute to sprawl and eventually become clogged by new developments around that road.

Denise Layne is executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Growth, a non-profit group. She says the idea for a new bypass road is not a bad idea. But without any kind of express lanes or mass transit, the new highway would have the same fate as I-75.

LAYNE: If all we're going to look at is more concrete, I don't think anybody's going to totally support that road. It's got to be more than concrete. At least we have preserve the right-of-way for future rail, future bus, future transit.

If that happens, Layne says many environmentally-minded people may support the bypass road.

LAYNE: What we've done is gridlock transportation in Tampa Bay. We've forced everybody going north, south, east and west to head anywhere else on the central West coast to have to head through Tampa Bay to get where they're going. Lakeland has to go through Tampa Bay to get to Naples. That's crazy.

Norman says construction probably won't begin for another decade, but some work could be done beforehand if the three counties work together to buy the right-of-way.

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