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In wee hours, Hillsborough leaders approve Tampa Bay Express, keep it in long-term plan (w/video)

TAMPA — It was one small step forward for Tampa Bay Express, one giant step backward for the opposition.

The Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization voted 12 to 4 shortly after 2 a.m. Thursday morning to keep the divisive $6 billion road project known as TBX on track by keeping it in its long-term funding plans.

But an incremental step for TBX amounted to a big setback for critics, who oppose the plan to add 90 miles of tolled express lanes to the interstate system linking five counties. They saw the meeting as their chance to bring the project to a halt.

The high stakes drew hundreds to Hillsborough County Center. The meeting started Wednesday evening and ended 8 hours and 20 minutes later in the early morning dark of Thursday. Nearly 100 spoke out against TBX while around half voiced their support for the project.

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Despite mounting opposition from Central Tampa neighborhoods and groups like 1,000 Friends of Florida, the vote to approve the project came as no surprise. Only two of 16 members — Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco and Hillsborough County Commissioner and MPO Chairman Les Miller — had publicly stated their intent to vote against the project before the public hearing.

County Commissioner Kevin Beckner and Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione were the other two dissenting votes.

"The work that all of you put in for your community has been unprecedented, at least in my experience," Montelione told a weary crowd that reached an estimated 500 during the eight-hour meeting.

"You can't be discouraged," Montelione 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.'"

Miller attempted to block the most controversial provisions of the plan — the downtown interchange expansion, Interstate 275 from downtown north to Bearss Avenue, and Interstate 4 east to Plant City — but that motion was voted down 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.

While the vote to approve the long-range plan in its current form easily passed the board, Hillsborough County Commissioners Sandy Murman and Beckner both sought to add extra oversight and accountability measures to the project.

Murman's amendment called for increased communication between the MPO and DOT, including quarterly updates. Beckner took that a step further by moving to require that the state present reports on the human impact of the project, mitigation plans for the affected neighborhoods, options for premium transit in the area, and any updates on a federal inquiry into whether the project violates civil rights laws.

Both amendments passed unanimously.

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?

TBX received strong support from the business community, many of whom attended the eight-hour meeting to advocate for the sweeping plans to expand I-275, I-4 and Interstate 75 from Pinellas Park through the West Shore district and downtown Tampa, north to Pasco County, east to Polk County and south to Manatee County.

Though a majority of the board voted in support of TBX, many of them were noticeably silent during the meeting, speaking only to cast their votes.

Tampa City Councilman Harry Cohen voted to keep TBX on the board's long-range plan, but not without reservations.

"I want you to know categorically that I am very skeptical of the toll lane concept," Cohen said. "And I am going to be asking the question of every person that is running for governor in the next cycle, 'What is your position on toll lanes?' This conversation is not over."

The meeting started Wednesday at 6 p.m. An estimated 500 people flooded the county's headquarters and spent hours urging the MPO's board to either approve or reject the massive road project.

Opponents waved signs and wore buttons imploring the MPO to remove TBX from the plan, which would effectively kill the project.

They arrived hours before the meeting, eager to make their voices heard. And when they filled every seat in the board room, they were directed to overflow seating downstairs where there still weren't enough chairs to accommodate everyone.

"We can do better," Michelle Cookson, a member of the Stop TBX Coalition, told the MPO. "We're at a critical crossroad, and we can turn toward prosperity and economic stability and 21st century growth. Or we can stay stuck in the past."

Though speakers opposed to the project outnumbered those in favor by a 2:1 ratio, many in the audience supported TBX. They flashed "TBXyes" stickers, wore green T-shirts, and told the board TBX will provide much-needed relief for an overburdened interstate system.

"Our transportation needs are great," said Don Skelton, former secretary for DOT's local district office. "This is an investment in transportation, which is an investment in economic growth.

"If we can't move people and goods, we're going to strangle ourselves economically."

The distinction between opponents and supporters was stark.

Some of the challengers sported T-shirts and pajama pants, while many of the 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 DOT officials advocated for its continuation.

"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."

They introduced themselves as either residents of a neighborhood or members of the business community. When they stated their address for the record, the geographical divide was clear: 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.

"We have engaged and energized many hundreds of citizens to be involved in our most critical issue: transportation," Cookson, with the Stop TBX Coalition, said following the vote. "We have brought the focus back to where it ought to be. We need transit, many systems that are connected and move more people and goods in less space."

About 185 people signed up to address the board. Not all spoke, but public comment lasted seven hours. The board then deliberated for an hour and voted shortly after 2 a.m. Thursday to approve the long-range plan.

This is the fourth time in three months that a public transportation hearing drew large, passionate crowds and stretched late into the night. In April and again in June, Hillsborough County commissioners heard from hundreds of people about whether to put a half-cent sales tax for transportation on the November ballot.

Commissioners rejected the referendum both times.

When it is completed decades from now, TBX will add managed toll lanes to 90 miles of previously free roads.

But these won't be traditional toll lanes. Unlike the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, which charges a flat rate, the cost of using TBX's express toll lanes will fluctuate based on demand. When traffic in the main lanes is at its worst, it could cost a driver $2 to travel a single mile in the express lane — or $15 to travel the 7½ miles from Bearrs Avenue to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The project also includes a new northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge and will revamp the downtown and Westshore interchanges.

But the work needs the approval of the Hillsborough MPO, a group comprised of elected officials and representatives from public entities that evaluates transportation and development.

"FDOT is committed to working with the community on transportation solutions for our region," district spokeswoman Kris Carson said. "We will continue the public outreach as we plan and prepare for TBX."

Thursday morning's vote allows the project to move forward, but it in no way finalizes it or prevents officials from opposing it in the future. The MPO must approve its Transportation Improvement Program every year, so funding for TBX phases such as the downtown interchange expansion could be nixed in the future.

Because of that, supporters like Michael Peterson with the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors said a yes vote would allow the MPO "to hedge your bets tonight."

"Voting yes for TBX only allows less than $500,000 for voluntary (property) purchases (in the next year) and you get another year to work out the problems," Peterson said.

DOT has told local officials that if they remove TBX from Hillsborough's long-range plan, the billions the state would allocate for the project in future years would go elsewhere — but not to other road improvements or transit projects in the Tampa Bay area. Instead, the money would be used to add toll lanes to highways in other parts of Florida.

That's not a threat, state officials have said repeatedly, just the reality. Regardless, the fear of losing that funding motivated many of those who came out to support TBX.

"If we reject TBX, our tax dollars will be spent by somewhere else, somewhere else in Florida," Ken Roberts said.

But while many at the MPO hearing viewed the project as an "all-or-nothing," siding with either TBXyes or Stop TBX, Taylor Ralph of Tampa said he represented a new constituency — the "TBX Maybe" folks.

Ralph encouraged the board not to let the state dictate what projects move forward, but instead to ask that TBX be split into its individual components. He suggested the MPO put the development of the toll lanes on hold while other options are studied.

Meanwhile, he said the MPO and DOT should move forward with critical improvements, such as rebuilding the northbound span of the Howard Frankland.

"We've been told we either accept all of the TBX plan, including the tolled and express lanes, or we don't get anything," Ralph said. "They're playing a game with our tax dollars.

"We call the shots … we develop the priorities."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

A birds-eye view of Mobley Park apartments in Tampa, next to Interstate 275 South, where residents could be affected by possible highway expansion. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

A birds-eye view of Mobley Park apartments in Tampa, next to Interstate 275 South, where residents could be affected by possible highway expansion. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

In wee hours, Hillsborough leaders approve Tampa Bay Express, keep it in long-term plan (w/video) 06/23/16 [Last modified: Thursday, June 23, 2016 12:50pm]
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