Hundreds of workers are pouring concrete and installing beams for the new $865.3 million Howard Frankland Bridge project. The new bridge will replace the current crossing, and include a section designated for potential light rail.
“I’m really proud of the work they’ve [construction crews] made. We’ve been fortunate the weather has been cooperative this year. It’s a tough project to build out there on the water after winds get too high and cranes have trouble, but they’ve been able to make great progress,” David Gwynn, District 7 secretary of the Transportation for Florida Department, said at the Nov. 15 Pinellas County Commission meeting. “We have set up the middle of it to be strong enough to accommodate light rail in the future, should that be something that materializes.”
The new bridge, which has been under construction since 2020, will have eight lanes: Four general use lanes and four express lanes; two lanes from St. Petersburg and two lanes from the Tampa side. Plus a separated bicycle/pedestrian pathway, and a centered lane for light rail, on both north and south bridges.
The new bridge is on schedule to open in late 2024. The following year, FDOT will finish the final touches and demolish the original 1960 structure.
“I get asked if it [the new bridge] will accommodate Brightline – no, it won’t,” he said.
The Miami-based intercity passenger Brightline train system first launched service in Florida in 2018, linking Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. In 2022, the line was extended to Boca Raton and Aventura.
In September, the company opened a hub at the Orlando International Airport and said there would be a future link to Tampa. Previous plans showed the trains would ride along the Interstate I-4 envelope and extend to the Ybor City area.
Many transit advocates have expressed support for rail and other modes of transportation as solutions to alleviate congestion on local bridges.
“If you were going to accommodate heavy rail, you pretty much have to have a separate bridge because it would require much heavier infrastructure than light rail would,” Gwynn said.
The American Public Transportation Association defines a heavy-rail system as an electric railway that runs on an exclusive right-of-way. Light rail systems, resembling connected tram cars, generally accommodate a smaller passenger volume.
Commissioner Janet Long, who served on the dissolved Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority board, questioned if the trams transporting passengers to the different airsides at the Tampa International Airport would be an example of the type of rail the bridge could handle.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have any [light rail] nearby you could point to. A commuter rail like SunRail in Orlando or Brightline uses a big diesel engine like a freight train,” Gwynn said. “A commuter rail system is one that probably stops every three to four miles and comes once an hour, whereas light rail is nimbler. It can stop every half mile and can stop and start quicker and is very much lighter.”
The SunRail system has 16 stations along a 61-mile former CSX Transportation line.
During Gwynn’s presentation, Commissioner Rene Flowers, who also previously served on the TBARTA board, asked if CSX is still opposed to selling its “dead” rail lines – an asset local government has long eyed to acquire for rail.
Gwynn said CSX is refusing to sell the lines, as the region does not have a solidified plan and funding commitment from agencies to operate a rail system on the lines running through the neighboring counties.