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Column: DOT, community must work together on TBX

By Mike Griffin, special to the Times
LUIS SANTANA | Times
Tampa Bay Express is a step in the right direction. However, the qualities of the neighborhoods impacted must remain intact.

Recently, members of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's Executive Committee, Transportation Committee and Emerging Leaders of Tampa Bay spent the morning touring the proposed Tampa Bay Express route with representatives from the Florida Department of Transportation. The tour was an opportunity for members of the business community to see how the approximately $3 billion project may affect the surrounding community, what has been done so far and what plans are being considered.

Since the Tampa Bay Express project was announced by DOT, the chamber has maintained a position of support for the project while insisting that DOT work with the impacted neighborhoods. The business community recognizes that progress is important, but equally important is the preservation of our community's diverse and rich heritage. The two must not be mutually exclusive or one be at the destruction of the other.

Consensus is the key to success. This means that DOT must do all that it can to address the neighborhood concerns and do what it can to minimize the impact on the community. This conversation has not always gone well. The DOT's outreach to the community needs improvement and should not be treated as an academic-like exercise. The impacted community must be held accountable to come to the meeting in a spirit of identifying solutions based on facts. Misunderstandings and rumors have occurred and caused fear and divisiveness within the region. This tactic is not working and needs to change to allow the Tampa Bay region to work together to help solve the transportation woes that all residents experience.

While no transportation project is perfect or exactly what every resident would like to see in their community, doing nothing is not an option. Tampa Bay must move forward with the projects that will help move people from one point to another more efficiently. Tampa Bay Express will not make Hillsborough County the most advanced transportation community in the country. It will not fix all the transportation woes, but it is a step in the right direction. However, the characteristics of the neighborhoods that will be impacted must remain intact. In fact, part of DOT's plan reconnects neighborhoods that were separated when I-275 was originally built. (For more information on the plan, go to www.tampabayexpress.com.)

During the 2016 legislative session, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon; Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa; and Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, helped secure funding to help re-establish a community youth center from DOT property that was scheduled to be removed due to the expansion. Their leadership should be applauded. The funds are available and must be used before the close of the state fiscal year ending June 30. The community center is a great asset to the neighborhood that it serves. The center's work is helping the next generation secure a bright future. The money will help them find a new, appropriate building that will help the center do the good work in the community. It would be an inappropriate response if the money is not used for a new location before the end of the fiscal year.

Soon, the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization will once again vote to keep TBX on their priority list. Today is the time and opportunity to have the conversations that will provide input and guidance from the entire community. These conversations must be thoughtful discussions on how to lessen the impact on the neighborhoods while providing the much-needed improvements.

Now is the time to stop dividing and choosing sides of the debate. It is the time to stop thinking it can only be one side or the other. Now is the time to start talking and working toward a solution that will be the best option for our community. We need to stop focusing on our disagreements and instead focus on moving the region forward together. Vibrant, committed and active neighborhoods are what make our region strong, and their input is valuable.

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce is ready for the conversation and looks forward to working with the communities and FDOT. Together we can find the answer.

Mike Griffin is the 2017 chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.