The term “bridge to nowhere” conjures up many different images from short-sighted government planning to outright corruption.
The term spans the entire spectrum of negative perception about government performance. We all know that bridges are built to connect two areas divided by some type of geographic barrier. If one or both sides are not connected, then the term "a bridge to nowhere" has been used throughout the world to designate such a structure.
The most famous American structure with this moniker is the Gravina Island Bridge in Ketchikan Alaska. It became the symbol for federal waste and budgetary earmarking in 2005. Many more of these “bridges” are scattered across America supporting nothing but the ill-conceived ideas of government planning.
Hillsborough County has its own version of the bridge to nowhere, but with a twist. It’s located in the burgeoning New Tampa neighborhood of Tampa and is actually the planned East-West Road included in the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP).
There is only one problem with the East-West Road: it doesn’t connect to Interstate-275. Although the MPO placed the construction of the road in its plan as cost affordable, which is dubious in itself. The Florida Department of Transportation never allocated any money in its cost-affordable, long-range plans to pay for the interchange and connect the road to I-275.
Yet, the road is part of the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Planning traffic modeling and future estimates in northern Hillsborough and southern Pasco County. The East-West Road is included because it is part of the Hillsborough cost affordable long-range transportation plan for Hillsborough County. Everyone needing future traffic estimates, from FDOT to city/county planners and consultants, uses this model for their future road planning and developments.
The road crosses over a large wetland and must be built on stilts for most of its 2.9 miles. The project has been debated for years, but public sentiment in New Tampa has been running more than 10 to 1 in favor of building the road. In the 1990s the road was estimated to cost about $105 million including the interchange to attach the road to I-275. The state even had the money set aside to build the interchange, about $35 million. FDOT performed a PD&E on the project in 2006 and the costs ballooned up to over $172 million and that did not include the northbound interchange.
It is an important road not only for the residents of New Tampa, but also for Pasco County’s Wesley Chapel, the fastest-growing area in Tampa Bay. The study showed that building the East-West Road would decrease daily road traffic on I-56 east of I-75. It reduces traffic on Bruce B Downs, Bearss Ave and I-75. It has been declared a Major Investment for Economic Growth project by the MPO in 2015.
Without a toll, it is estimated the road would carry about 32,000 cars a day, 11.6 million/year or about three-quarters of all the current yearly transit rides in Hillsborough County. Even if 50 percent of the road was paid by tolls, the city of Tampa declared it did not have the money to build it.
The road was removed from the MPO 2035 LRTP but was placed back on the 2040 LRTP to be financed by the city of Tampa and a tolling authority even though the Hillsborough Expressway Authority and Florida's Turnpike turned down the project. The cost to build the road in the future is now estimated at more than $250 million.
In addition, FDOT has not included an interchange in the plan since losing the funds over 10 years ago. This means the state, county and city have been using a road that doesn’t connect to anything in their area traffic planning.
Developers have used the road in their modeling for project development and density planning. How much extra development was allowed because the East-West road was included is unknown. How much our local elected officials knew about our bridge-to-nowhere situation is unknown, but many serve on the MPO and should have been able to red-flag it.
When staff at FDOT was asked about the connection and the model, they replied they thought the road had been canceled. Then why was it still being used in the traffic model?
MPO staff must have been aware of this because they prepared the county long-range plan and knew there was no money to connect the road to I-275, but continued to use the “connected” road in estimates and planning, as did Pasco County MPO officials. Developers and their consultants did the same.
As usual, the people who live and drive in New Tampa and Wesley Chapel were blindsided and will be the ones stuck with a bridge to nowhere and nowhere to go.
Bridges to nowhere are still monuments to inept government planning and corruption.
Dr. Jim Davison is a conservative activist and noted expert on transit and tax matters. This column appears courtesy of The Tampa Bay Beat.