Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Transportation

Local DOT official who oversaw controversial Tampa Bay Express project resigns

TAMPA — A top official at the Florida Department of Transportation's local district who oversaw the controversial Tampa Bay Express project resigned last week.

Debbie Hunt was director of transportation development for the Tampa Bay district. She led new road and transit projects, including the $6 billion overhaul of the area's interstates known as TBX.

"It was her decision," district spokesman David Botello said. "It's a big loss for us."

"She was the public face of TBX throughout the region," said Whit Blanton, executive director for the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization. "It was surprising to see somebody like that leave so quickly."

Botello said he did not know why Hunt resigned and could not say if the decision was linked to TBX. The department faced heavy criticism from elected officials earlier this fall for how the project was explained to leaders and community members, especially the state's plan to put a toll on one lane of the Howard Frankland Bridge.

READ MORE: State's answer to Howard Frankland traffic: Pay a toll or lose a lane

Hunt did not return calls for comment, nor did DOT District 7 Secretary Paul Steinman. She worked for the department for 29 years, including time in Tallahassee and Southwest Florida.

Botello said DOT does not have a replacement lined up and is looking to fill the position. An online posting for the job had a short five-day window, which closed Tuesday.

Emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times showed that top DOT officials in Tallahassee paid close attention to the Howard Frankland controversy. DOT's Tampa district office was instructed to send its responses to Tallahassee for review. When a story quoting angry local officials was posted online, DOT Secretary Jim Boxold replied to an internal email containing the article with a wry remark: "That went well."

Boxold later stepped in to scrap the department's plans for the bridge, and the department indefinitely postponed public hearings that had been set for October. District officials have said they don't expect to have a new plan for the bridge ready before June.

READ MORE: We asked 14 local officials if they knew the Howard Frankland was losing a free lane. Only four did.

"There's a tremendous amount of pressure associated with getting a type of project like this done in a timely manner," Blanton said. "And when you get that political blowback, that pressure goes up a thousand degrees."

Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization executive director Beth Alden said Hunt, who had formerly been the primary spokesman for TBX, had not been their main point of contact on the project for the past few months.

Details from the department about Hunt's departure were limited.

"Please be advised that Debbie Hunt no longer works for District Seven Transportation Development, effective November 18, 2016," said an email to local officials dated that day.

"The fact that we haven't gotten anything in more detail indicates to me that they're just not prepared yet to say what happened exactly," Alden said.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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