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How many lanes on Howard Frankland? Tolls hinge on debate

FDOT and Urban planners are at odds over how a proposed toll lane would take shape on the Howard Frankland Bridge.

State Sen. Jack Latvala is against taking a lane of the Howard Frankland Bridge for a toll lane. WTSP photo

Tampa, FL -- Thousands of rush-hour commuters are already frustrated by sitting in daily heavy traffic on the Howard Frankland Bridge.

So the idea of paying for the privilege, as much as $6 each way during peak traffic times, is for many -- infuriating.

Equally maddening, say critics, is the issue at the heart of this commuter controversy. A question of how many lanes in each direction on the bridge.

If you say four, most people who drive along the span would say you're right.

But the Florida Department of Transportation would say you're wrong. And that's the sticking point when it comes to a proposal to add a toll lane to the bridge.

FDOT has long talked about adding a toll lane to the Howard Frankland to improve traffic flow. Part of the so-called TBX project.

But several urban planners who've supported that plan for years, now say they've been blindsided.

Harry Cohen, Kevin Beckner and Les Miller, all prominent members of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, say they were led to believe any toll lane on the bridge would be in addition to the existing four lanes on the bridge. Not taking away a lane for tolls.

“I would be not in favor if they were going to take away one of the free lanes,” said a commuter exiting the bridge Tuesday.

And the proposed maximum toll?

“Six dollars? No. I can't,” said driver Elsa Rodriguez.

State Sen. Jack Latvala says he has several problems with the idea. First, he says, it’s unfair to those who can least afford to pay tolls, leaving them relegated to longer delays.

“It kind of makes the other people second-class citizens. I just think that's wrong,” said Latvala.

But Latvala contends it’s not only unfair -- it's illegal.

“The way our laws are set up, tolls are only supposed to be put on new capacity,” he said. “Those lanes have obviously been in operation for a long time.”

FDOT claims its plan to have one less free lane has been clear all along, and that the right lane on the bridge has always been an auxiliary lane even though anyone who drives on the span can see people use it all day long.

Emails and phone calls to FDOT’s regional office had gone unreturned as of late Tuesday.

“I trust that if they've made a decision and think it will work -- then it'll help,” said one driver who wouldn’t mind paying a toll if it meant a faster commute.

But many regular commuters say the bridge itself is not the problem. They say it's a bottleneck that occurs at the eastbound Tampa International Airport / Kennedy Boulevard exit. There, the highway is reduced to just two lanes.

Fix that first, say critics, and you might not need a toll lane.

“They toll enough of our roads. It's a bridge. It's there for our convenience,” said another commuter who would prefer the airport interchange get fixed first.

FDOT says expanding the interchange at the airport exit is part of the TBX long-term plan as well as eventually adding capacity to the Howard Frankland Bridge.

But those who feel that they've been duped want FDOT to scrap any plans to take away a lane for tolls.

It’s an issue certain to get a lot of attention when the Metropolitan Planning Organization meets from 9 to 11 a.m. Oct. 4 at the County Center in Tampa. The same day FDOT will hold another of its TBX public hearings.

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