Saturday, April 7, 2012

Tolls on the Howard Frankland Bridge?

Here's a disturbing article I found at the St. Petersburg Times a couple of days ago: Howard Frankland Bridge may see tolls.

You got that right. Tolls on an interstate highway, which are usually prohibited by the federal government save for a few highways that were grandfathered in before the creation of the Interstate Highway System in 1956. Want proof that there are tolls on an interstate highway today? Look no further than Interstate 95 in Miami from the Florida Turnpike/Golden Glades Interchange to Interstate 395: There are express lanes that are tolled and the tolls are variable depending on the time of day.

In fact, the Florida DOT is considering the tolled lanes on Interstate 95 in Miami idea on Interstate 275 in Tampa as well as Interstate 4: Tolled express lanes.

Why impose tolls on the Howard Frankland Bridge? Here is a comment on the St. Petersburg Times article that I posted:

Here's how I would look at the Howard Frankland Bridge becoming a toll facility like the Sunshine Skyway:

1. The original 1960 northbound span is nearing the end of its useful service life. It needs to be replaced using current standards along with a third span for future commuter rail.

The Sunshine Skyway was built in 1954, two years before the Interstate Highway System was signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1956. When Interstate 275 was made a part of the Sunshine Skyway, the tolls were allowed to exist as the Sunshine Skyway was built long before Interstate 275 and the tolls were allowed to be grandfathered. Besides, the tolls were going to help pay off the bonds from the original 1954/1971 construction and the current 1987 bridge.

Bridges built in this era - such as the original Sunshine Skyway in 1954 and its southbound twin in 1971, the westbound Gandy Bridge in 1956 and the original Howard Frankland Bridge in 1960 - were allowed to be built so close to the water. If there is any justification as to why you can't build a bridge so close to the water, look at the 1956 Gandy Bridge today - which was used as the Friendship Trail until it had to be closed due to major corrosion which would lead to failure of the structure - the highly corrosive environment being salt water going over Tampa Bay is why it costs way too much to even repair the structure.

The 1991 Howard Frankland Bridge southbound span was built much higher, especially on the low level trestle span and using fewer trestle piers of the hammerhead type rather than a series of bent pilings driven into the bay bottom.

2. $500 million is a lot of money to raise. With gas prices at $4/gallon which equals less driving plus the fuel efficient car, it is difficult to raise money from the gas tax alone. As such, tolls need to be considered.

Where else are we going to get $500 million? Property taxes? With declining home values and the present anti-tax increase sentiment, that's out of the question.

3. If and when the Tampa/St. Petersburg area gets commuter rail, tolls imposed on the Howard Frankland (and possibly Gandy and/or Courtney Campbell) will get more and more people to seek other transportation alternatives. For comparison, Singapore - half a world away from Tampa - uses what is called Electronic Road Pricing which amounts to a congestion charge, designed to get more and more commuters to use mass transit.

To me, I believe tolls should not be imposed on the Howard Frankland Bridge unless Tampa/St. Petersburg commuters have a choice that is workable, not with the inept mass transit system we have now.

Have I mentioned improved mass transit for the Tampa/St. Petersburg area? From what I understand, a replacement of the Howard Frankland Bridge original 1960 northbound span would also entail a bridge that would carry commuter rail across Tampa Bay, using a very gentle slope for where the center hump is located much like the high level railroad bridge over the New River in Ft. Lauderdale that carries Tri-Rail traffic across.

Granted, the Tampa/St. Petersburg area needs better mass transit now using commuter rail as the base, not the inept and uncoordinated service provided by PSTA in Pinellas County and HARTline in Hillsborough County. TBARTA - the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority - needs to morph from just an advisory agency to an agency that would be responsible for the Tampa/St. Petersburg region's transit needs. Even if it takes the merger of PSTA and HARTline to accomplish this objective, it would make the Tampa/St. Petersburg region an attractive place to work and live.

So, I have a suggestion for TBARTA and the Florida DOT: Build the necessary improvements including a commuter rail line using the Howard Frankland Bridge when the time comes to replace the structure. After we get the commuter rail up and running, then begin charging tolls on the Howard Frankland Bridge for those that still want to drive the long commutes to and from work such as someone that lives in New Tampa and works in St. Petersburg.

It all boils down to one word: Choices. We Tampa/St. Petersburg residents deserve a choice when it comes to transportation needs, and commuter rail should be one of them. We can expand Interstate 275 to 20 lanes in either direction or build a replacement Howard Frankland Bridge with better capacity but that won't do much good.

And if we were to impose tolls on the Howard Frankland Bridge now, it would spell an economic disaster for our region. If the Selmon Crosstown Expressway in Tampa is extended along its own path to the eastern entrance of the Gandy Bridge, and Gandy Blvd. is used for its westward extension to St. Petersburg and Interstate 275's Exit 28, then the Gandy Bridge would become a toll bridge integrated with the Selmon Crosstown Expressway. Mix two bridges between Tampa and St. Petersburg that are now free with tolls and the lack of trasportation choices in our region and you got a recipe for economic disaster.

Again, it all boils down to one word: Choices. (Emphasis mine)