Paradigm-Shifting Highway Teardown Gaining Traction in Tampa

A rendering of what could replace Interstate 275 in Tampa. Image: Josh Frank
A rendering of what could replace Interstate 275 in Tampa. Image: Josh Frank

The proposed removal of I-275 is more than just a highway teardown.

A group of Tampa residents, led by local urban designer Josh Frank, have proposed turning the city’s most-hated freeway into a functional multi-modal urban boulevard. The 11-mile, six-lane highway — which is used by 142,000 vehicles daily — would become a street for pedestrians, cyclists, and even light rail users.

This is ground-breaking visionary stuff for Tampa — which right now has few alternatives to crowded highways — but it’s starting to gain some real traction at official levels. This week the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization voted unanimously to conduct a feasibility study.

“We’ve accommodated roads in the worst way possible in Florida,” Frank told Streetsblog. “People are starting to realize this is something we can’t do forever especially with sea level rise.”

Michelle Cookson of the grassroots group Sunshine Citizens, which has been opposing highway expansion plans throughout Hillsborough County, called the planning agency vote “very exciting.” The group pushed its members to contact the board and urge them to vote “yes” on the study.

The concept for an urban boulevard — which is being pushed with the hashtag #blvdtampa — would help restore 36 acres of city land in the Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights and Ybor City neighborhoods, which were devastated by I-275’s construction in the 1950s. And it comes at a time where neighborhood residents are hungry for alternatives.

Photo: BlvdTampa.com
Historic photo, I-275 construction via BlvdTampa.com

When the Florida Department of Transportation introduced a proposal to widen congested highway to up to 20 lanes last year, the response was so fiercely negative, then-Gov. Rick Scott fired the region’s top DOT official.

“It’s barely been changed since the 1950s,” Frank said. “There’s no soundwalls. They didn’t want to spend money to elevate it. They never tried to do anything for the communities, so they hate it.”

Florida DOT's rendering of. proposed 20-lane widening. The idea was forcefully rejected by local residents.
Florida DOT’s rendering of. proposed 20-lane widening. The idea was forcefully rejected by local residents (perhaps the rendering had something to do with that?).

The fight helped propel Kimberly Overman, a Seminole Heights resident and opponent of the plan, into a position as County Commissioner. She is now one of the plan’s most prominent supporters.

“There was a pretty big shift here. We don’t want any more roads,” said Frank. “We want to shift toward transit and smarter people who will support transit.”

The idea for the boulevard started out as a graduate school thesis project for Frank, a St. Petersburg native who runs his own design studio.

It is gaining momentum at an opportune time. Hillsborough County residents passed a one-cent sales tax hike to support transit expansion and other safety improvements last year. The projects it will pay for have not yet been selected but fixed-route transit, like Frank proposed for the corridor, are part of what the $267 million annual revenues are going to be dedicated to.

Frank admits it would take a lot of work to make the teardown viable, including transit expansion. But that is looking more and more possible, thanks to the tax hike.

“We can’t tear it out tomorrow,” he said. “If we start thinking about it now, we can work toward that. We need to know that that’s a goal first.”

15 thoughts on Paradigm-Shifting Highway Teardown Gaining Traction in Tampa

  1. A one cent sales tax hike to raise to support transit expansion. Fortunately, there is little support for raising taxes in Florida, but it is too bad that tax watchdogs will have to make another effort to kill this inane proposal. Why when transit ridership is steadily declining nationwide are Floridians being suckered to pay for more infrastructure boondoggles.

  2. Unlike most Interstates, I-275 is the main route and I-75 is the bypass east of the metro Tampa area. I-275 goes to downtown Tampa, the international airport, and St. Petersburg. I-75 goes to none of those areas. Changing I-275 to an urban boulevard would cause massive congestion and make journeys to and from St. Petersburg & the airport from points north a nightmare – especially at rush hours.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  3. Downtown highways have clearly been a miscalculation of the American civil engineering profession for decades. There’s basically 3 outcomes, all of which are terrible:
    1) if there’s not enough on/off-ramps, then traffic gets snarled as soon as it hits the surface streets in the morning. Then, in the afternoon, everyone has to circle back to the same jammed on-ramps. This is trying to get on I-66 in Washington DC, where it can take 45 minutes to go 2 blocks.
    2)if there is a lot of on/off-ramps, then the highway section becomes a) complex & dangerous, b) extraordinarily expensive, and c) ends up moving at boulevard speeds anyway during rush hour (or ZERO MPH when there’s the daily fender bender). This is like the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, that crawls by the loop at sub-10 MPH approximately 22 hours per day.
    3) Or the Hartford situation (and several other cities) where traffic is successfully obliterated, but there’s BILLIONS of dollars of extremely expensive infrastructure to serve ~30K downtown jobs, an employment level that could be served with a pair of $5M/mile, 4 lane surface roads. Costs can literally be 100X out of scale for the employment & population levels.

  4. No one was ever fired from FDOT D7 over this. Bad reporting and fake news all the way around. The DOT is widening the interstate and adding a transit lane to the inside shoulders. Win..win!

  5. Might I add the widening is within existing ROW and on the same vertical and horizontal alignment! No relocations and everyone is getting a noise barrier. Again… win win.

  6. This sounds insane. Some people want to tear down a busy highway and replace it with an “urban boulevard.” The result would be terrible traffic jams which would convince people to avoid the whole area killing businesses and destroying property values.

  7. First off, what does sea level rise have anything to do with tearing down a freeway? Nothing. Wouldn’t sea level rise affect the boulevard just the same as if a freeway were in its place?

    Second, the freeway that I-275 now follows might have been planned in the late 1950’s, but it was constructed during the 1960’s.

    Third, there are soundwalls erected throughout the 11 mile segment of I-275, and there have been lane additions to the freeway since it was built, with some ramp modifications at a couple of the interchanges.

    Fourth, the one-cent sales tax was implemented in January 2019 (not last year as your article states). From what I know and have read, that extra money will not be seen for at least a year, and it still will be a couple of years before citizens will even see any transit improvement.

    For Josh Frank: who is “we” when you refer to as “we don’t want any more roads”? Are you solely speaking for all of “us” who live and work in the Tampa area? A lot of “us” do not share your views on tearing down one of the only major freeways within the region, me being one of them. Do you expect “us” to walk, bike, and take transit all across Tampa and the outlying areas? And how is tearing down 11 miles of freeway servicing those who live in neighboring counties to the north but work in Downtown Tampa?

    And one final note. If you are going to write an article about this, please get ALL the facts first. Bad reporting indeed…

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  9. FreewaysWithFutures: “And how is tearing down 11 miles of freeway servicing those who live in neighboring counties to the north but work in Downtown Tampa?”

    Shouldn’t have lived that far out then, should you? I guess I can’t blame you, being a victim of this style of development in the first place. We have to blame Pasco/Hernando county for rubber stamping developments in the hinterlands with absolutely no regard for their impact on transit situations in other counties.

    I’m not responsible for your lifestyle choice to live way out from work so that you can have a bigger house for cheaper. Why not get a smaller home closer to work for the same money? Don’t be so entitled.

  10. Robert: For your information, I do not live that far from Tampa, nor am I living in those northern counties. How presumptuous of you to a) think you know my geographic location b) think you know my lifestyle, and c) believe that I am an entitled person. All from reading an opinion in a blog post. Bravo.

    However, believe it or not I do agree with you on the rubber stamping developments as you put it, going on in our neighboring counties to the north. I dislike it just as much as you probably do. I think its ridiculous that these counties continue to allow non-stop growth without provisions for future needs, that include transit.

    But I have to ask, where are these movement groups when it comes to sprawl development? Where are you when hundreds of trees are torn down, and natural drainage systems are disrupted all for the name of zero lot line homes, big box commercial stores, or powerhouse centers? I never hear about a development being stopped because an environmental group pointed out how detrimental it would be to the area habitat. No, it never happens with land developments.

    Some may not like what I have said on here, and that is fine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, including you.

  11. Just because you never heard about environmental groups or citizens stopping destruction of woodlands, wetlands and natural resources would depend on where you get your news. I personally (through letters and direct communication) and as a member of Broward County, Florida environmental groups helped save several such areas from “development” in the 70’s and 80’s before I moved away. Maybe you need to be the one who does that for your area?

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  13. Honestly I do not think that highways are the problem, sure with population increases transit alternative and options might need to be part of the topic, but LET’S BE REAL!! And this is from my own countless amounts of observations, (People) and (the way they drive) accounts for more than 80% of traffic jams at least here in Tampa., when you have people switching lanes without any turn signals, braking excessively for no reason especially on the highway this causes a chain reaction, also people texting and not paying attention I feel there should be signs and penalties for these things. I can bet you that congestion would be almost eliminated. Ex: “Slower Traffic Please Keep Right”

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