Eight hours and one contentious vote later, pro-TBX and anti-TBX forces regroup

Published June 24 2016
Updated June 24 2016

TAMPA — Tampa Bay was recovering from a transportation hangover Thursday.

A highly-anticipated public hearing at the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization regarding Tampa Bay Express, a $6 billion road project that will add 90 miles of toll lanes to the area's interstate system, started Wednesday evening and lasted 8½- hours.

It was almost 2:30 a.m. Thursday when the MPO finally voted 12-4 to keep TBX on track. Hundreds of dedicated community members — pro-TBX and anti-TBX — then shuffled out of the government building.

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As the sun rose, many elected officials cleared their schedules for the morning or didn't come into the office at all.

Those in the business community slept for a few hours before sending congratulatory emails to their members.

As for the opponents who spent the last year-and-a-half marshalling forces to try to stop the Florida Department of Transportation's massive road project?

"A day of rest for now," read a Facebook post from Sunshine Citizens, the main group opposed to the project. "Maybe two."

But while rest was sorely needed, the vote was by no means the end of the TBX debate between transportation planners, business interests and neighborhood activists.

"We're going to keep fighting," said Julie Harris, a Seminole Heights resident who fears her elderly parents might be forced to move from their home of five decades to make way for a retention pond.

Thursday morning's vote kept TBX on the MPO's long-range funding plan, which allowed the project to move forward. But it is far from the final stamp of approval.

The MPO is required to vote on the project every year. And construction on the Hillsborough components isn't expected to start until 2021. That means there are four more votes between now and when residents will see the first construction barricades go up for the mammoth highway project.

Rick Fernandez, the president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association, scheduled a meeting Thursday night to assess the opposition's options after the MPO's vote.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who cast one of the MPO's four "no" votes, planned to attend that meeting. His message: if residents want to weather the long road ahead, they need to find common ground with the business community.

"The DOT, whether it was with intent or not, really pitted the different segments of the community against each other by the way they packaged this all together," Beckner said. "You have the business folks who were on the yes side and you have the neighborhoods that were on the opposite side."

The distinction between TBX's opponents and supporters during the meeting was stark.

Some of TBX's challengers sported T-shirts and pajama pants, while many of its champions stood in suits and ties. They varied not just in dress, but in occupation: students, entrepreneurs and teachers spoke out against the project while executives, engineers and former state officials advocated for it.

"These are people who are paid to be here for this project because this project benefits their employers," Seminole Heights resident and business owner Nikki Rice said to the board. "It is time now to consider your constituents."

When they stated their address for the record, there was also a geographical divide: the opposition hailed mostly from Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights and other urban neighborhoods while the supporters listed addresses in Wesley Chapel, New Tampa and Pinellas County.

And when the final vote was announced, they either resolved to continue their fight or breathed a sigh of relief.

"The level of celebration that we have is that we dodge a very powerful, explosive bullet (Thursday morning) that would have had some extremely negative consequences if it had gone the other way," said Tampa Bay Partnership Executive Director Rick Homans, an advocate for TBX. "If we had come out of last night with a negative vote and had lost $3.3 billion, I think the ramifications would have been very dire for Tampa Bay."

Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione, another MPO member who voted against TBX, tried to rally the project's weary foes.

"You can't be discouraged," she said. "You can't let this give you the opportunity to throw your hands up and say, 'That's it. I'm done. I'm tired. We lost. I'm over it.'"

Another no vote, Hillsborough County Commissioner and MPO chair Les Miller, tried to block the most controversial parts of the plan — the downtown interchange expansion, Interstate 275 from downtown north to Bearss Avenue, and Interstate 4 east to Plant City — but his motion was defeated 11-5. The fifth vote was Trent Green, a member of the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission.

"We've got to realize that the people that's going to be effected the most don't want this," Miller said.

Plant City Commissioner Nate Kilton commended audience members on their passion for their communities, but said TBX needed to move forward as "one cohesive package" if it is to succeed.

"I have significant concerns about taking out these sections of the road," Kilton said. "One of the biggest problems is the bottleneck we have at I-4 and I-275. If we're not going to correct that, then why even bother with this, to be perfectly honest?"

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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