Friday, August 24, 2018

Building Bridges

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is preparing to release a request for proposal to build a new 8 lane span for the Howard Frankland Bridge (HFB). FDOT is planning to award the contract in late 2019, and to start construction in 2020.

At $814 million, it's not cheap, but has the advantage of being paid state and federal monies... and some tolls. But it's cheaper than the $892 million planned a baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, without parking in Ybor City, which could become the burden of Tampa and Hillsborough residents. The bridge will benefit a lot more people every day than a new baseball stadium.

If you're interested in the details, a draft version of the RFP is now available.

FDOT proposed new span for the HFB

The new span will be built on the north side of the current southbound span. The current northbound span, built in 1960, will be demolished once the construction is complete.

The new span will have 4 southbound free general purpose lanes (same as today), and add 4 more tolled express lanes, 2 in each direction. The current southbound span will be reconfigured to northbound, resulting in 12 total lanes, an increase of 4 lanes of capacity.

This will add 50% more capacity in each direction on the bridge.

While we don't enjoy paying tolls any more than anyone else, we would rather pay some tolls for the roads we use and some congestion relief rather than waste time sitting in traffic. We don't expect to need to use the tolled express lanes all the time. But it will be nice to have that "choice" to pay for less congestion.

The HFB plan improves the traffic flow and prepares for the inevitable growth in traffic to come.

Additionally, all the lanes will be available for hurricane evacuation. Express Bus service is expected to use the express lanes as well.

Note also in the picture above FDOT has included a pedestrian and bike path. There is also a placeholder in the draft RFP for a scenic overlook! (see Page 49) It's not clear how the new bike-ped trail will be accessed, as bikes and pedestrians are generally prohibited on the interstate highway system.

It won't be cheap. FDOT is now quoting $814 million for the 5.8 mile 8 lane plus bike path span.

At least that is a lot cheaper per lane mile than around the $450 million the Tampa airport people mover cost for 1.2 miles, and will move a lot more people.

According to FDOT, the 2017 Average Annual Daily Traffic (AADT) on the HFB is 177,500 vehicles per day. That will grow substantially, to over 250,000 vehicles per day by 2040.

As a comparison, the Tampa Bay Rays average attendance for the 2018 season is 14,422 per game, during an 82 game season.

That new capacity on the HFB is needed now. Your money for the Rays? Not so much.

But the Times has reported concern that the HFB plans do not include dedicated lanes for transit.
The state is inching closer to building a new Howard Frankland Bridge — but the project seems to be moving forward without an exclusive lane for a three-county bus rapid transit system. 
A draft request for proposals to design and build the new bridge says it will have eight lanes of traffic — including two toll lanes in each direction — and a bike and pedestrian trail. But there’s nothing set aside for BRT.
Given the use of transit today on the HFB is minimal, it is totally sensible NOT to spend over a $100 to $200 million more to build more capacity for the 51 riders a day (July 2018) on the HART route 200X Clearwater Express. (PSTA does not make route readerships easily accessible, but we don't expect much difference).

51 riders a day on transit vs. 177,500 vehicles per day. Using the Federal Highway Administration standard average vehicle occupancy rate of 1.7, the HFB transports 301,750 people per day.

Not building dedicated lanes for transit and allowing transit to take advantage of the toll managed express lanes on the HFB is the right thing to do.
"Since we are providing additional express lane capacity, we are confident this will provide transit vehicles a reliable travel time and that an additional lane (for buses) would neither be needed or a responsible use of available funding," [FDOT spokesman Kris] Carson said.
FDOT has planned to add transit lanes if needed.

FDOT could add dedicated transit lanes by widening and reconfiguring the northbound span
Regardless, FDOT states
In order to accommodate light rail in the future, we would not have to construct a third bridge as called for in the previous plan. We would only need to widen the existing southbound bridge and shift some of the travel lanes to the widened bridge, which would be more cost efficient and less impactful to the environment.
The usual suspects are complaining about the lack of dedicated BRT, and the HFB plans are moving faster than whatever the controversial BRT plans to run down the interstate shoulders turns out to be. But the reality is ridership is so limited so any investment should be limited until proven otherwise. We will all be better off without the wasteful spending on dedicated transit lanes until we have some demonstration of robust transit ridership.

The most troublesome issue with the HFB will remain the SR60 interchange. While I recall some discussions on improvements on the interchange, they were clearly tactical, and not even much of a short term fix. That must change.

The SR60 will be another major project as defined by FDOT. It's a mess now, particularly northbound from Pinellas into Tampa, as I-275 N necks down from 4 lanes to 2 lanes, and the single lane fly-over from I-275N to SR-60W inevitably slows down. Traffic now can back up here about any time of any day. The congestion will only get worse, as FDOT expects the traffic in that interchange to grow from 178,000 (2015) to 255,000 vehicles per day by 2040.

FDOT is planning to start public hearings for the Westshore Area Interchange in 2019. This is not nearly soon enough, as the HFB will be finished before much, if any, construction on the interchange, delaying much of the HFB project congestion relief.

This will be a complicated, expensive project, as there is not much room for additional right of way, particularly on SR60. However, it looks simpler than the Miami Palmetto - Dolphin interchange, which has two 8 lane highways, and several surface streets converging in the same relatively small area. It was no fun regularly driving through it during construction, but the end result is much better traffic throughput.

The inevitable congestion around Westshore is not a reason to further delay the needed HFB work. It is a reason to keep the pressure on FDOT and Tampa Bay area politicians and business leaders to accelerate the Westshore Area Interchange as much as possible.

The HFB project will benefit more Tampa Bay residents than the Tampa Bay Rays stadium, the Tampa Airport people mover, and the proposed BRT routes combined. It must be started soon.

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