Tampa Bay’s main bridge is old and needs to be replaced. So for the past three years, the state of Florida has been showing around a plan to build a new one. But when local leaders heard the plan, they misunderstood something really important that was sure to enrage drivers. Once they figured out what was really going on, the plan collapsed in a week. How the plan to fix Tampa Bay’s most important bridge fell apart, told in Legos By ELI ZHANG, CAITLIN JOHNSTON, ANTHONY CORMIER and MARTIN FROBISHER Times Staff Writers Dec. 15, 2016 This is the eastbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge, going from St. Petersburg to Tampa. It was built in 1960. The Florida Department of Transportation wants to replace it. It included the new bridge in a larger project that will add nearly 100 miles of toll lanes to Tampa Bay’s highways. Local leaders thought they understood the plan. They thought they were getting a wider bridge with extra lanes, like this. The new lanes would have tolls. The tolls would rise to $6 when traffic was heavy and drop when it was light. But drivers who didn’t want to pay would have the same four lanes they do now. That wasn’t really the state’s plan, though. Instead of giving drivers more lanes, DOT would take a free one away. We learned about this in September. Then we asked 19 local politicians who were briefed by DOT to describe what they thought they heard. Fourteen said they believed they were getting more lanes. Four said they knew a toll was being added to an existing lane. One state representative said he didn’t get enough information to know either way. Most of the leaders were confused because of how DOT described its plan for the bridge, which is part of a toll road project called Tampa Bay Express, or TBX. DOT said again and again that TBX wouldn’t take away free lanes when it adds tolls to Tampa Bay’s interstates. The local leaders assumed that applied to the Howard Frankland, too. But DOT counts lanes on the bridge differently than most people. By DOT’s math, this bridge has only three real lanes. See that red car? It’s driving on what the DOT calls an “auxiliary lane.” The lane spans the entire length of the bridge. But DOT says its only purpose is to connect the on-ramp in Pinellas with the off-ramp in Hillsborough. The other lanes are regular “general-use” lanes. DOT’s plan was to take one of those regular lanes, where the orange car is. And build a toll on it. That might seem like DOT was breaking a promise not to take away a free lane. But that’s where the auxiliary lane comes in. After building the toll, DOT officials would instantly reclassify the auxiliary lane as general-use. That way, they said, drivers still would have three regular lanes. Just like they do now. Under pressure, the head of DOT admitted they were the only ones who saw it that way. The state’s presentations contributed to that confusion. We listened to audio or read transcripts of more than a dozen DOT briefings about TBX since 2013. We found that officials glossed over several key details of their plan for the bridge. They seldom talked about how the bridge would look. They rarely mentioned their unconventional way of counting its lanes. What they did say was often lost in the discussion of the bigger project. It wasn’t unusual for a DOT official to spend 20 minutes describing other parts of TBX, and to dedicate only a few sentences to the bridge. Three of the four local leaders who figured out the bridge plan were from Pinellas. The auxiliary lane came up in an April 2015 meeting, but only after two Pinellas officials peppered a DOT representative with questions. The information didn’t make it to Hillsborough, where leaders were focused on a different part of TBX. They asked detailed questions about a controversial interchange in downtown Tampa but didn’t scrutinize the plans for the Howard Frankland. DOT’s brief explanations of the bridge often came in the middle of TBX discussions that stretched from three to eight hours. Even professional transportation planner Beth Alden didn’t understand the plan. Her job is to advise the Hillsborough agency that approves transportation projects. Alden said the state always talked about adding new lanes for tolls, not taking lanes away. For example, DOT describes TBX on its website like this:“Express lanes are new lanes added to existing interstate routes. ... They are separate, and only these new ones are tolled.” It didn’t help that local leaders sometimes got impatient during TBX briefings. Les Miller, the chairman of the Hillsborough transportation agency, once interrupted a presentation to say everyone already understood the plan. Four months later, he learned DOT wanted to take away a free lane on the bridge. He said he was positive DOT never told his organization that. We told DOT the local leaders were confused. DOT’s people were surprised. After a week of criticism, they put the project on hold. Six weeks later, the DOT official who oversaw the project resigned. Both sides actually agree that Tampa Bay needs a bigger bridge. Local leaders thought that meant one bridge. But DOT wanted to build two. That’s where the confusion came from. This is what the Howard Frankland looks like today. The eastbound bridge opened decades before the westbound one. Here’s the bridge DOT wanted to build first. To save money, it wouldn’t have any extra lanes compared to the bridge that’s there now. Then DOT would demolish the 1960 bridge. A toll would be added to one lane going each way. This is the plan that angered local leaders. It would stay that way until local leaders agree on a plan to build public transportation across the bay, connecting Tampa and St. Petersburg. They have failed to do that for decades. They might never succeed. If they ever do, then DOT would build the wider bridge that local leaders thought they were getting upfront. The tolls would move to the big bridge, and the 2019 bridge would be used for public transportation. Building the smaller bridge would have saved DOT $300 million in the short term. It also might have made it easier to pass a public transportation plan one day. But building both bridges would have cost an extra $450 million by the end of the project. With these plans on hold, DOT says it won’t have a new proposal until after June. When it does, it will be up to local leaders to approve it. MORE INTERACTIVE STORIES FROM THE TAMPA BAY TIMES… FAILURE FACTORIESWhy Pinellas County is the worst place in Florida to be black and go to public school. CHOICE AND CHANCEWhen a gunman entered the Pulse nightclub, those in his path had only a heartbeat to react. INSANE, INVISIBLE, IN DANGERFlorida cut $100 million from its mental hospitals. Chaos quickly followed. WALMARTTampa Bay Walmarts get thousands of police calls. You paid the bill. BEHIND THE SCENES: How we built this. Times staff members Ron Brackett, Amy Hollyfield, Dennis Joyce, Gregory Joyce, Ron Saar, Lyra Solochek and Sharon Wynne contributed Lego people to this report, which also made use of many hundreds of Lego bricks and buildwithchrome.com.