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South County road projects listed as sales tax increase vote looms

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Hoping to encourage South County support of a penny sales tax increase this fall, Hillsborough transportation planners have listed a collection of area road projects for funding if the added cent gets voter approval.

And, after two meetings encompassing several hours of discussion with county transportation specialists, members of the South Shore Round Table (SSRT) last week unanimously signaled their support of the assorted roadway-related proposals projected to cost nearly $150 million in 2010 dollars.

The potential projects involve two existing Southshore I-75 interchanges, a third interchange not yet sited, several undertakings in Sun City Center, widening a portion of Big Bend Road, resurfacing and bike lanes on 19th Avenue and on Shell Point Road in the Ruskin area as well as completion of the U.S. 301 widening to S.R. 674.

The master list of recommended road projects to be underwritten by a sale tax increase was slated to be presented to Hillsborough’s commissioners this week, according to Lucia Garsys, assistant county administrator for infrastructure planning.

A referendum calling for increase of the Hillsborough County sales tax from seven to eight cents on the dollar is expected to be on a mid-term election ballot this autumn. Transportation planners have projected that, if approved, the quarter cent share of the sales tax increase earmarked for roadway transport projects would produce about $700 million for the unincorporated county over approximately a 30-year span of time, beginning with $44 million coming in fiscal year 2011. About 90 percent of the funding generated by the quarter cent portion of the added sales tax would be available for unincorporated Hillsborough projects in the first 10 years

Based on choices expressed by the general public during open house transportation meetings conducted around the county during 2009, three fourths of the penny, if approved, would be funneled into light rail transit across municipal Tampa. The remaining fourth of a cent would be applied to roadway projects around the county.

However, long-range transportation plans initially drafted by the planners included few road-related enhancements across the South County beyond addition of some bus service by HARTline. The region’s residents, nonetheless, would pay the added sales tax on their taxed purchases if the referendum were passed.

Consequently, Garsys, along with other county managers, met initially with the SSRT board on March 4 and returned on March 15 as the group met in special session. The SSRT board is composed of representatives from nearly every community in the South County region. Together, they agreed on pulling several South County projects, replacing them with more than a half dozen deemed more beneficial.

Two of them representing the greatest impacts, both in terms of costs and effects on residents, involve the two I-75 interchanges at Gibsonton Drive and at Big Bend Road. Proposed changes to the Gibsonton Drive interchange with the interstate highway include two new cloverleafs. One designed for southbound drivers would channel them onto an exit on the south side of Gibsonton Drive and then into the eastbound lanes as other southbound drivers going west continue to use the existing exit ramp to proceed west. The configuration would eliminate the present necessity of drivers leaving the interstate at this point crossing in front of west bound traffic to get into eastbound lanes. Plus, such separation of exiting vehicles into two different ramps is expected to relieve congestion on the exit ramps at peak traffic hours.

The second proposed cloverleaf would channel northbound drivers leaving the interstate and going west on Gibsonton Drive onto a new exit ramp north of Gibsonton Drive and then curving around to connect with the surface street. Similarly, the configuration would save northbound vehicles exiting to head west the necessity of crossing in front of eastbound traffic on the drive. Drivers going east on Gibsonton Drive would continue to use the existing exit ramp.

Preliminary estimates of the costs involved in these improvements are in the $25 million neighborhood.

At Big Bend Road, engineers are proposing both new exit and new entrance ramps, along with other adjustments. The major new construction would take I-75 southbound drivers onto a new exit ramp on the north side of Big Bend if going west, while the current exit on the south side of Big Bend would be reserved for vehicles headed east. Such a design would eliminate vehicles crossing the eastbound lanes to go west as they presently do.

Another major proposed improvement to the Big Bend Road interchange is a new entrance ramp from the westbound lanes of Big Bend for drivers coming from the east and entering the northbound lanes of I-75.

The first estimated price tag for these changes is $40 million.

Another $35 million is estimated for one more interchange along the I-75 route through the South County, although the suggested transportation feature is not yet sited, Garsys said. And, the dollar amount is only for the initial work such as feasibility studies. Acquisition of rights-of-way and construction are not estimated.

Completion of the widening of U.S. 301 to six lanes from C.R. 672 south to S.R. 674 is estimated at $50 million, with half of that amount to be provided by Hillsborough County as the Florida Department of Transportation antes up the other half.

Other South County roadway projects included on the paid-by-a-quarter- cent list are widening of Big Bend Road to six lanes from I-75 east to the Simmons Loop Road – approximately a half mile – and resurfacing work along much of 19th Avenue as well as along Shell Point Road in Ruskin. This latter project also includes paved road shoulders to function as bikeways. These jobs are estimated at $14.5 million.

Another set of listed projects is installation of culverts replacing the failing aqueduct along the north side of Ojai Avenue as well as along the south side of LaJolla Avenue in Sun City Center. While one segment of this work is scheduled for late 2010 and into 2012, another presently is unfunded in the amount of $800,000 and unscheduled, engineers said. Still other improvements in the retirement community involve enhancements at hundreds of stormwater inlets plus a newly-proposed golf cart crossing from the north end of the community to the regional library on 19th Avenue. This collection of projects is lumped together with an estimated $8 million price tag.

As for projects once included on the master list and presently eliminated, they include six-laning Big Bend Road west from U.S. 301 to Covington Gardens Drive, extending Apollo Beach Boulevard east to I-75, plus the South Coast Greenway Trail from the Little Manatee River Preserve to the Alafia River Bridge and the golf cart bridge over U.S. 301 on the east side of SCC.

Passage of the proposed one cent sales tax increase is critical to moving ahead with the South County road projects remaining in the master mix, as well as others in the unincorporated parts of the county, said Tom Fass, a professional engineer and section manager in Hillsborough’s public works department. Road improvements are substantially underwritten by gasoline taxes and, for a combination of reasons, the county’s share of gas taxes has not kept pace with needs or inflation, he asserted. “We need this quarter penny tax,” he emphasized, adding that if voters support the sales tax increase referendum, the anticipated monies could be maximized with issue of bonds that would provide project funding sooner.  

© 2010 Melody Jameson

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