Florida Examines Express Toll Lanes Between Tampa, Orlando

Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel
BARTOW, Fla. — Express toll lanes are the only way to relieve future congestion on Interstate 4 between Lakeland, Florida, and Tampa, the Polk Transportation Organization was told Feb. 25.

The information came during a presentation on the $449 million portion of the Tampa Bay Express project between downtown Tampa and the western leg of the Polk Parkway in Lakeland. It is part of a larger $6 billion project that will involve the construction of toll lanes in other areas around Tampa on I-4 and I-75.

Also speaking was an opponent of the project, which has divided Tampa officials over its impact on historic neighborhoods, its cost and the likelihood that it will improve traffic congestion.

Menna Yassin, the project manager at the Florida Department of Transportation, said a feasibility study is scheduled to be completed this year, but there is no money budgeted in the current five-year plan for engineering or construction.

The engineering design work is scheduled to begin in 2020, she said.

Yassin said the plan to add toll lanes is the ultimate widening project for the 50-year-old highway within its existing right of way. A similar project is under study on the section between downtown Orlando and U.S. 27.

County Commissioner Ed Smith asked what FDOT's plans are for the section of I-4 between the Tampa and Orlando projects.

A feasibility study is planned for 2024 for the section between U.S. 27 and the western leg of the Polk Parkway, said Jennifer Stults, intermodal systems development manager for the FDOT office in Bartow.

"We don't know what the result of the study will be," she said. "It's not going to happen if the numbers don't make sense."

Stults said the interstate highway express lanes are designed primarily to accommodate drivers planning to travel most of the highway's length because there will be few exits for those lanes.

She said state policy dictates that any new lanes on interstate highways must be toll lanes because that's the only way to finance them.

However, FDOT officials will not proceed with any project unless the estimated toll revenue is adequate to pay for the project.

Last year, state transportation officials shelved plans for the Central Polk Parkway, a proposed toll road through rural areas of northeast Polk County, because the toll study said it was not financially feasible at this time.

Yassin said the toll feasibility study on the Tampa project is still under way.

Lakeland City Commissioner Jim Malless, who is a land planner, said he was skeptical of the claim that this project would create the capacity to aid in hurricane evacuation, arguing the coastal areas are too overdeveloped to be efficiently evacuated.