The Interstate 375 spur as well as the I75 spur in St. Petersburg could be removed – creating acres of developable land and better connecting neighborhoods.
During a Thursday city council meeting, the city’s transportation director Evan Mory, and Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, shared the preliminary findings from the Downtown Mobility Study. In the works for over a year, the study is also meant to hone in on possible modifications to the existing roadways to reduce vehicular crashes, including major changes to the Interstate system.
The planned redevelopment of Tropicana Field and the accessibility to the site ignited the study, Blanton said.
“For I-375, we looked at this as a modification where we would shorten the intestate spur or the removal of the spur. In all scenarios, we are keeping the interchange at I-275 so you would still have the same level of regional accessibility,” Blanton said.
By removing the I-375 spur, it would free up 20-28 acres of developable land and over two miles of walkable streets. The removal would, however, pose conflicts.
“The removal of I-375 may undermine some of the other city goals of making 16th Street more of a complete street. When you take out the high-capacity roadway, traffic does shift and it does begin to affect 16th Street,” Blanton said.
The change would also add a one-minute increase of travel time to St. Anthony’s Hospital, according to projections.
“We have met with the first responders, emergency professionals and got their feedback,” he said.
Sunstar Paramedics, Pinellas County’s provider for 9-1-1 ambulance services, isn’t concerned about losing I-175 or I-375, Blanton said; however, the St. Pete fire department expressed concerns due to the needed access.
Blanton said he will have one-on-one conversations with the teams from Bayfront Health St. Petersburg and Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital regarding the potential changes.
Blanton explained it would be a balancing act as the removal would create more economic development and improve safety, but it would delay high-speed access to downtown and could impact the future of I-275.
“A partial removal doesn’t give us additional benefits,” Blanton said regarding the other scenario. “Candidly, both of these options could jeopardize the funding for I-275 improvements because they are tied into I-375.”
A Forward Pinellas spokesperson said while the organization is studying the I-375 changes, I-175 is more of the focus.
“The city’s consultant said they are looking to create a neighborhood and not just a stadium,” Blanton said. “You’re looking for a destination in a neighborhood … it makes sense to consider removing I-175 because it opens it up to everyone.”
Earlier this month, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman selected Midtown Development as the master developer to redevelop the 86-acre Trop site. Part of Midtown’s proposal includes demolishing a part of I-175.
Blanton compared the scenario to the Naval Training Center project in Orlando, three miles from downtown. Ultimately, Orlando’s master plan reconnected the street grids despite opposition from the city of Winter Park, and the projections of horrific traffic delays didn’t materialize because they built an efficient grid street network.
“The lessons learned from Orlando are relevant to the Tropicana Field site. Embrace the grid, the connectivity when both of these interstate spurs are operating at 40% of their capacity event in the peak period. You have an opportunity to reconnect that grid,” Blanton said.
“This [removal of I-175] is a lot more doable than I-375 because you have more right-of-way in the 4th and 5th Avenue South area than you do in 4th and 5th Avenue North,” he said. “We’d keep the interchange at I-275 so you’d still have that southern regional access. The streets are not congested, you’re able to manage the future demand of travel on the existing street network.”
Councilmember Robert Blackmon questioned how the new traffic pattern would affect commuters attending the Rays’ games.
“When you drive to any baseball stadium in the country for playoffs, you are going to experience serious congestion … you have a lot of advantages in St. Petersburg has that Tampa does not. You have a great network, Interstate right there,” Blanton said.
A Forward Pinellas spokesperson said there are more opportunities for people to get involved. This is just the first step of a very extensive public engagement process.
People can stay up to date by following its social media or viewing its website: ForwardPinellas.org/DTSP.
Modifications to the downtown core
Another momentous undertaking is converting downtown’s one-way streets into two-way streets.
One of the primary corridors being studied is Dr. MLK Jr. Street and 8th Street.
“Since these are city roads, if we got rid of that diagonal connection, that opens up a lot of dirt for potential housing in an area that already has a great deal of somewhat-aged, multi-level garden apartments. Removal of that would not only restore the grid, I think it gives us an excellent opportunity for more housing,” Councilmember Darden Rice said.
Under a worst-case scenario, about 35 seconds of intersection delay in the year 2045 by converting the streets.
“Overall, we aren’t seeing congestion on the downtown streets because there’s excess capacity on the roadways,” he said. “This does enable more walkable streets, bike paths and potentially more economic development because you are creating these roads more like a Beach Drive or Central Avenue rather than a pipeline to get in and out of downtown quickly.”
The conversation of MLK and 8th Street has long been supported by city staff, but there have been obstacles such as the bridge that’s under construction on Booker Creek.
“Converting the streets from one-way to two-way is a no-brainer,” Rice said. “Successful retail in order to be successful needs a two-way street.”
The draft of the complete study will be completed this month and finalized in January, Blanton said.