Tampa Bay Express lanes project is part of a bigger trend

The Tampa Bay Express plan is part of a bigger trend, but critics call it a gift to the rich.

FDOT plans a not-yet-funded, $3.3 billion project to smooth traffic on Hillsborough and Pinellas interstates by creating an express lane in each direction and charging cars (no trucks) an electronic toll to use it. Florida Department of Transportation
FDOT plans a not-yet-funded, $3.3 billion project to smooth traffic on Hillsborough and Pinellas interstates by creating an express lane in each direction and charging cars (no trucks) an electronic toll to use it.Florida Department of Transportation
Published July 4 2015
Updated July 6 2015

Universal Studios does it at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Now the Florida Department of Transportation is looking to do it on Interstate 275.

Pay extra and switch to the faster line — or, on I-275, the faster lane.

And both are doing it for the money, though for the state, reducing congestion is a big goal, too.

But in Tampa neighborhoods close to I-275, the idea is winning little support among residents who oppose the FDOT's Tampa Bay Express. That's a planned, but not-yet-funded, $3.3 billion project to smooth traffic on Hillsborough and Pinellas interstates by creating an express lane in each direction and charging cars (no trucks) an electronic toll to use it.

As part of the work, the FDOT plans to spend $1.8 billion on a section of I-275 that includes rebuilding the downtown interchange — a plan that has provoked intense opposition in neighborhoods like Tampa Heights. That's where an old church building, bought by the FDOT and leased to a neighborhood group for use as a community center, would be bulldozed to make room for the new interchange.

Meanwhile, critics call the express lanes "Lexus lanes" and predict they'll make driving easier for the monied few, while one lane over less-affluent drivers will be left behind, stuck and fuming.

"A lot of people who do own cars probably won't be able to afford these lanes, and that concerns me," said downtown Tampa resident Adam Metz, who launched a change.org petition opposing the project — mainly because of the impact of widening the downtown interchange — that has attracted more than 1,450 signatures.

The policy of creating tolled express lanes on state highways goes back 4½ years to when Ananth Prasad led the FDOT for Gov. Rick Scott.

With money scarce, Prasad issued a directive: "All additional capacity on the interstate shall be express lanes," defined as lanes where drivers who want to use them pay electronic tolls that vary depending on how heavy traffic is.

State law allows tolls in express lanes of up to $10. FDOT officials say the tolls would fluctuate, like rates for rental cars and hotel rooms do, as demand rises or drops.

"Our budgets are no different than the county's budget, the city's budget," Debbie Hunt, the director of transportation development for the FDOT's district office in Tampa, recently told a roomful of Seminole Heights residents. "We don't have the money to just keep doing things without a return on that investment."

Express lanes won't be unique to Tampa

This is part of a larger trend. More states and metro areas are turning to tolled express lanes, often for the same reasons.

First, there's little appetite to pay for new roads by raising gasoline taxes, said Stephen Reich, a program director at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

In 1988, engineer Robert Poole wrote a paper proposing to create privately financed toll lanes, which led California to launch a pilot project in Orange County. Since then, the concept has been embraced by officials in Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, Fort Worth, Texas, suburban Virginia near Washington, D.C., and Miami.

Generally, there's a lot of skepticism and outright opposition to the idea, but that drops and congestion eases as drivers use the lanes, said Poole, who lives in South Florida and is director of transportation policy at the libertarian Reason Foundation.

After tolled express lanes went onto I-95 between Miami-Dade and Broward counties, transit buses allowed to use the lanes saw a fivefold increase in passenger traffic in that corridor in peak hours, Poole said.

Research tends to undermine the express lanes' reputation as Lexus lanes, Reich and Poole said. Most users don't take the lanes daily, just occasionally, such as when they need to get to the airport or have to pick up a child from day care to avoid paying a late fee.

In 2010, the state of Washington surveyed drivers on its high-occupancy toll lanes and found the top four makes of cars were Ford (19 percent), Chevrolet and GMC (18 percent) and Toyota (12 percent). Five percent were luxury brands such as BMW, Mercedes and, yes, Lexus.

A 2012 study by researchers from Stanford University and Virginia Tech said a survey of express lane users in Orange County, Calif., found that those with household incomes below $50,000 used the lanes an average of 7.4 times per month. The average was 7.7 monthly trips for drivers making $200,000 or more, and 9.1 uses per month for drivers with household incomes of $100,000 to $149,000.

City, neighborhoods want a voice in plan

In Tampa, the City Council has voted to explore ways to either block funding for the project or demand a seat at the table when Tampa Bay Express plans are reviewed. (The FDOT has said it has always intended to include Tampa in the plan review.)

Mayor Bob Buckhorn is not opposed to the larger concept.

"I think DOT is trying to do its best to mitigate (congestion) and to give us mobility options," he said. "In a pure world, would there be Lexus lanes? No, there wouldn't. But we've got a problem and we've got to accommodate it."

In neighborhoods along the interstate, residents and business owners have lined up against Tampa Bay Express for a variety of reasons.

Some say widening the downtown interchange would bring more trauma to neighborhoods split by the original construction of I-275, and just as a wave of pioneering homesteaders and urban entrepreneurs are bringing the area back to life.

"As projects like this happen, they start to erode the historical equity" that residents "have in their community," said Matthew Suarez, a design manager who has raised concerns about whether the FDOT is properly assessing the project's impact.

Some also say the FDOT should include funding for transit in the same corridor at the same time, similar to the way the first phase of the SunRail train system was opened last year to provide a transportation alternative while I-4 is torn up for a multibillion-dollar tolled express lane and reconstruction project.

"We need a much better plan than FDOT has come up with," Metz said, "and SunRail in Orlando is proof that FDOT is capable of a better plan."

The project doesn't preclude transit, FDOT officials say, but without expanding the downtown interchange, there won't be room for a transit corridor. And they say they're listening to community concerns.

"We understand that the community has been impacted, and we understand that noise has been an issue," Hunt told Seminole Heights residents at a recent community meeting. "We've heard about it for years," so FDOT officials "are trying to do everything we can to put noise walls along the corridor."

Now's the time for that kind of discussion, Buckhorn said.

"They're going to require an expansion of the interstate in order to do either bus rapid transit or a rail envelope," he said. "But design is important and impact on the community is important. That's why I'm glad they are getting out in the community now."

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