TAMPA — After nearly two years of delays, a controversial New Tampa road project received the green light Thursday.
Meeting as the Environmental Protection Commission, Hillsborough County commissioners voted 5-1 to clear the final hurdle to construction of a bridge over Interstate 75 linking Commerce Park and New Tampa boulevards.
During comments before the vote, business owners and residents of the Cross Creek area expressed support.
"We need this alleviation of traffic," said Karen DeGiorgio, whose neighborhood stands to benefit from the alternate route to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard that the bridge would create.
The vote upholds a hearing officer's recommendation in November to dismiss resident Evelyn Romano's appeal. She had argued that the bridge and the additional traffic it would bring through her West Meadows neighborhood would create a nuisance and jeopardize safety.
"Disappointment doesn't quite cover what I feel at the moment," Romano said after the meeting.
With the county's approval, the city of Tampa can proceed with the roadway extension. The project will take roughly two years and is expected to cost about $16 million.
Commissioner Victor Crist, the lone dissenter, argued that environmental concerns Romano and others raised had not been considered. Local rules were being allowed to supersede state laws, he said. Other commissioners said existing rules didn't give them legal standing to delay the bridge.
"I think our hands are tied," Commissioner Ken Hagan said.
Attorneys for both the city and the EPC have argued Romano's challenge, initially filed in April 2009, was irrelevant to approving a wetlands permit and that she had no standing to oppose the project. Once the order is signed, Romano has 30 days to decide whether to take her case to the 2nd District Court of Appeal. She was contemplating her next move Thursday.
She criticized commissioners' decision to limit public comments during the hearing to general statements about support or opposition to the road extension.
Richard Tschantz, director of EPC's legal and administrative services division, had encouraged commissioners to limit comments. He said allowing speakers to explain their position could be seen as introducing new evidence, which was not acceptable at this point in the process.
Tschantz interrupted several speakers when he felt their comments had crossed that line.
Romano said that was unfair and provided proof that residents weren't being heard.
"We were not allowed the ability to present our evidence and our side of it," she said.
Tia Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.