By Sean Bowes

After years of deliberation, debate and red tape, the construction of the New Tampa Blvd. Gateway Bridge that will connect Tampa Palms to West Meadows has begun, 24 years after it first appeared in a study by the North Tampa Transportation Network.

On June 20, city workers began the first phase of the construction — clearing of the land. Workers have begun mowing down overgrown weeds and clearing out trees to make room for the new structure. The West Meadows (north side) of the project will be where the actual bridge construction starts. At present, there is heavy equipment and barricades on both sides of the projectwhich ultimately will connect to the bridge between New Tampa Blvd. and Commerce Park Blvd.

The new project, which will primarily affect residents of the westernmost communities in West Meadows and those in Tampa Palms Areas 4 and 8, will provide the bridge over I-75 and a two-lane highway between Commerce Park Blvd. in Tampa Palms and the extension of New Tampa Blvd. in West Meadows. Actually, the bridge will be four lanes wide, but will be striped for two-lane traffic (one lane in each direction) for the time being.

Tampa-based Prince Construction won the contracting bid for the project. Prince Construction is the same company completing the widening of I-275 from U.S. 41 to the I-275/I-75 interchange.

Disputes and concerns over the construction of the bridge have been brought by some West Meadow and Tampa Palms residents, and considered by the members of the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission (EPC). Originally, the EPC members (who also are the seven members of the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners) expressed concerns about building a bridge through the 2.2 acres of wetlands and upland wildlife habitat in both Tampa Palms and West Meadows; however, the EPC voted on January 27 to uphold a permit for the construction. The EPC noted that governing rules did not allow them to deny the permit for construction, despite the traffic and safety concerns expressed in an unsuccessful lawsuit brought forward by West Meadows resident Evelyn Romano.

While many New Tampa residents are happy about the soon-to-be Gateway Bridge, because it will offer a way to get north and south of BBD/I-75 interchange without driving on BBD, a few have voiced their opposition against the bridge. The opposition states that the benefits do not justify its $14-million price tag, and also citing safety as a concern.

Attorney and Tampa Palms Resident, Warren Dixon, has been involved in the controversy surrounding the bridge for years. Dixon, and his client, Romano, originally opposed the bridge, in part, because it could eventually be the link to the proposed New Tampa East-West Connector Roadway (E-W Rd.) which if built, Dixon says, would bring an influx of high-speed traffic to the residential neighborhoods that surround public schools (Freedom, Chiles, Liberty, Clark), New Tampa’s City Recreation Center, and the New Tampa Skatepark. Safety of the adjacent neighborhoods that border the construction is a concern for Dixon and his client. Though, a traffic light near Freedom High will be erected to control the expected increase in traffic, city officials said.

Dixon admits that bridge will be a convenience to the residents and the businesses once the construction is completed, but he would like to see it remain only a two-lane bridge, instead of expanding to the four-lanes, which it will be large enough to accommodate.

Nonetheless, there are still many local residents who are looking forward its completion.

‘“The new bridge also will make the roads safer for our children.” says Franic Mora, homeowner in the Richmond Place subdivision, “It allows the school buses to travel a less congested road to get them to and from school. Any improvement we can do to make our children safe should go forward as quickly as possible.”

In a previous Neighborhood News issue, we reported that the bridge will shorten the routes of five school bus routes in the area (which currently travel East on BBD), and the bridge also will enhance emergency response times from Tampa Fire Rescue Stations 20 and 21.

Marty Culpepper, a West Meadows homeowner who lives near New Tampa Blvd. is worried about the effect the bridge may have on his property values.

“You tell me who wants to live on the road with loud cars, loud radios, speeding motorcycles and emergency vehicles,” Culpepper says,” The resale value will fall through the floor.”

Residents on that stretch of West Meadows and Tampa Palms also should expect to see construction start taking place on the shoulder of New Tampa and Commerce Blvd., as well. According to Annette Spina, public affairs officer for the City of Tampa, additional improvements include; retaining walls, a bike path, lighting, storm sewers, new sidewalks, and decorative potted plants on both sides of the bridge.

“We have gone to great effort to make sure that the project will blend in with those master-planned communities,” city transportation manager Jean Dorzback said.

The bridge, which will be painted in soft earth-tone colors of gold and brown, will also feature potted plants, and decorative panels. The design is based on a drawing from former Wharton High School art student Stacey Manchester.

The new additions also will incorporate a five-foot sidewalk on the south side and an eight-foot wide, multi-use trail on the north side, which will allow pedestrian and bicycle traffic to safely cross I-75 without using Bruce B. Downs. Currently, there is a paved bike path on Commerce Park Blvd. adjacent to Freedom High, which will connect bicyclists and pedestrians to the new bridge.

The 0.7-mile-long bridge was designed by Kisinger Campo and Associates, the same company who designed the much-improved I-4/I-275 interchange (AKA the former “Malfunction Junction) near downtown Tampa. This project is expected to be completed within in two years, though, it has been previously reported that the bridge could be finished within 17 months.

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