St. Petersburg officials continue to explore modifications to the city’s downtown transportation infrastructure – including the possible removal of I-175 – to adopt a multimodal vision, increase safety and reestablish community connections.
During Thursday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, city council members heard the results of an extensive downtown mobility study led by Forward Pinellas, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and city staff. Officials conducted substantial traffic analysis, forecasting models and public outreach as part of the study.
Evan Mory, director of transportation and parking management for the city, and Whit Blanton, director of Forward Pinellas, presented the committee with the final report, focusing on project priorities and an action plan. The most significant debate centered around removing or reducing the size of I-175 and transforming one-way streets to allow travel in both directions.
“Each of the main projects we have recommended to go forward are complex, major projects,” said Mory. “In terms of 3rd and 4th Street, 8th and Martin Luther King and 175, in particular.”
Blanton said forecasts show downtown St. Petersburg growing from 30,000 residents to 45,000 by 2045. Similarly, employment downtown is projected to increase from 45,000 to 58,000 in the next 15 years. Data shows that 43% of all crashes in the area occur on one-way pairs, which account for 17% of the downtown street network.
Through case-study research and analysis, Blanton found that two-way streets are safer, improve business accessibility and promote more livable communities. He also noted that 18 U.S. cities transformed their freeways into community assets.
Research showed that redesigning highways increases walking and biking, economic opportunity, environmental quality and neighborhood connectivity. It also found that ambulance services are more concerned with the smoothness of transportation rather than travel times – although officials must continue to address how changes may affect emergency responses and hospital access.
As part of the study, officials held over 10 community conversations, nine listening sessions and compiled over 1,000 responses through four surveys. Blanton said public outreach would continue through the process.
“There’s never a transportation project that makes everybody 100% satisfied in every corner,” said Blanton. “But I think we’ve done a lot to mitigate some initial concerns and help people feel like their partners in this process.”
Blanton said officials recently elevated potential I-175 modifications to a Priority One classification. Over the next one to three years, the city will assess engineering options for the 1.37-mile stretch of interstate that leads into downtown. Blanton said the FDOT committed funding to evaluate three scenarios: leaving the highway untouched, a conversion to create a boulevard and completely elevating the span to create connectivity underneath.
Blanton said FDOT hired a consultant and started the evaluation process, and he expects to have the results later this year.
“And once they determine what’s feasible and there’s no red flags, then we would engage the public …,” he said. “We want to be ready … by looking at the land-use, urban design and equity in the area and have a community-driven effort with the adjoining neighborhoods and businesses that are affected to assess how we would use any reallocated space in this corridor.”
If the city keeps the interstate, it could also reduce it to two lanes in each direction, which Blanton said would free up several hundred thousand square feet for commercial space, affordable housing or other community amenities.
He said the city is exploring funding options for the project, including the federal Reconnecting Communities program, which offers a $1 million competitive grant.
“We don’t think we’re ready for construction money,” said Blanton. “But we do think we’re ready for planning money that could augment and complement the Florida Department of Transportation’s efforts.”
The FDOT focuses more on transportation aspects, and Blanton said the federal grant would explore potential uses for added space provided by modifying or eliminating the interstate.
Mory showed council members a picture from the 1960s before the interstate divided historically Black communities in St. Petersburg.
“Not only do we want to look at better connections, but could we bring in affordable housing; could we bring in some businesses?” asked Mory. “Not to replace what was there before, but to start to try to improve that.
“You can’t undo the past, but you can try to make good decisions for the future.”
Blanton said that any construction on I-175 would take between seven and 15 years.
Councilmember Brandi Gabbard asked if the Tropicana Field redevelopment plan would include the modification or removal of the interstate and any land that would provide the city. Mory said the two projects should exist separately, but the city should coordinate the plans.
“I don’t think they should be completely combined,” said Mory. “But they certainly cannot be completely excluded.”
Councilmember Ed Montanari noted that St. Petersburg is one of the fastest-growing cities in the state. He said removing interstates and traffic lanes in an area that remains “car-centric” concerns him.
He added that as other parts of the region increase traffic capacity, the city contemplates taking lanes away, even though congestion on the city’s thoroughfares has increased.
“I just think that we’re going to take a relatively efficient grid system in the City of St. Petersburg and do some damage,” said Montanari.
Mory said I-275 is the cause of most of the city’s traffic congestion – and the interstate will soon receive express lanes that could reduce the number of people taking local streets from north to south. He added that not all of the projects call for lane reductions and that the most pertinent question was if I-175 needs an eight-lane width.
He said surface roads would receive additional lanes if the city loses I-175, and if modified, it would keep one or two lanes in each direction.
Blanton said the city uses just 40% of I-175’s capacity, and the study’s projections show the freeway remaining at 40% capacity through 2045.
“So, I feel very confident that there is a lot of room to work with here,” said Blanton. “One thing about Pinellas County, we have the shortest journey to work travel time – among the shortest – of any urban area in Florida.”
Blanton added that ensuring workers across all income levels have access to nearby affordable housing is critical to reducing congestion and keeping travel times down.
The committee approved a motion to bring a formal resolution accepting the study’s findings and action plan to an upcoming city council meeting. Montanari voted no, with Councilmembers Lisette Hanewicz and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman absent.