TAMPA — Community members on Tuesday berated local officials who voted to approve Tampa Bay Express, calling them "chumps" and accusing them of failing to properly vet the interstate expansion project that will add toll lanes from Tampa to St. Petersburg.
The Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, a group of elected and appointed officials who oversee transportation decisions in the county, had its first board meeting since state officials decided Monday to change course on an important part of TBX: replacing a free lane with a toll lane on the new northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge.
Last month the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Florida Department of Transportation planned to replace one of the four lanes on the new bridge span with a managed toll lane. The new bridge would have three free lanes, one fewer than it has now. More than a dozen elected officials told the Times they were unaware of the DOT's plans for the bridge, which is set to be replaced in 2019.
The bridge replacement is an important part of the larger $6 billion TBX plan to add toll lanes to nearly 100 miles of the region's interstate system. Back in June, the Hillsborough MPO voted 12-4 to approve the plan after an eight-hour meeting.
While TBX was not on Tuesday's agenda, about a half dozen people used the public comment period to scold the board for approving the project without fully understanding it.
Members of the MPO also told the Times they were surprised to learn that the DOT planned to take away an existing free lane in each direction and replace it with a toll lane. Those individuals said they thought the state was adding a separate toll lane — not replacing a free lane.
The state reversed that decision Monday. DOT Secretary Jim Boxold said the agency will not add a toll to any existing lanes. Since that announcement, state officials have scrapped their bridge plans, canceled two public hearings on the project scheduled for this week and are working on coming up with other options.
Those who oppose TBX count this as a small victory, but remain concerned about the overall TBX plan itself and the officials who approved it.
"It still raises questions about how badly your oversight failed," said Andy Harris, a resident of Seminole Heights and an outspoken critic of TBX. "Were you not paying attention? Were you too trusting of the DOT sales pitch? And how can we have confidence in your oversight now?"
Other individuals challenged MPO officials to spend time researching and heeding the warnings of those who have actually studied the plans, instead of only paying attention to the DOT's own presentations.
"The root of the problem here is that the majority of this board uncritically accepts (the state's) pronouncements of TBX," project critic Doug Jesseph said. "You have, in a word, been played for chumps."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.