Under pressure over Tampa Bay Express, FDOT puts some local priorities back in its plan

State officials face fears that express lane plans would siphon money from other priorities.
Published November 11 2015
Updated November 11 2015

TAMPA — Under pressure over its priorities, the Florida Department of Transportation has found money for several projects that local officials feared were being slighted in favor of the controversial Tampa Bay Express interstate expansion.

Last month, three elected Tampa and Hillsborough officials questioned whether the FDOT's proposed five-year work plan would divert money toward Tampa Bay Express' tolled lanes at the expense of projects like bike lanes and better bus service.

But Tuesday night, an FDOT official said the agency now plans to move around some federal funds and would budget money to study expanding the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority's MetroRapid bus service and add synchronized traffic signals on N Dale Mabry Highway, a top local priority.

And local officials said discussions were scheduled about funding for Tampa's planned "Green Spine" multiuse trail.

"A lot of progress has been made," Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization executive director Beth Alden told the MPO's board.

But the FDOT's news came after a couple of dozen opponents reminded the MPO they want nothing less than a reversal of the state's plan to build Tampa Bay Express, often abbreviated as TBX.

"Supposedly we're trying to solve the problem of traffic congestion, and the solution is road widening," Tampa Heights Civic Association representative Rick Fernandez told the MPO.

That, he predicted, would not help, but only induce more demand.

"If you're overweight and you go and buy yourself a larger pair of pants, you're still overweight, and the odds are very good that you're going to grow into those fat pants," said Fernandez, part of an overflow crowd of residents from downtown, Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights, Southeast Seminole Heights, V.M. Ybor and Ybor City.

The first phase of TBX would spend an estimated $3.3 billion on:

• Enlarging the downtown I-275 interchange.

• Replacing the Howard Frankland Bridge.

• Expanding I-275's interchange at State Road 60 to speed the flow of traffic coming off the Howard Frankland Bridge.

• Adding tolled express lanes to I-275 in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, as well as to I-4 and I-75.

The $1.8 billion expansion of the downtown interchange has aroused the most opposition.

A couple of dozen speakers called TBX an ill-conceived "monster" that was based on outdated data and would do immeasurable damage to urban neighborhoods.

Others almost certainly would have said the same if the MPO had allocated more than half an hour for public comment. Several called on officials to support anything else: rail, rapid bus service, ferries, bike lanes, better pedestrian trails.

"You're not listening to us," said Stan Lasater, president of the Southeast Seminole Heights Civic Association. "Every citizen has spoken, and every citizen is against this."

In response, FDOT officials have started a series of 10 community meetings to gather ideas on ways to ease TBX's impact on Tampa's urban neighborhoods and has agreed to pay for a study with HART to study transit alternatives such as rail.

One MPO member said the FDOT's commitment to listening to the community would mean a lot when TBX funding comes back to the Hillsborough planning group next June.

"I am going to be watching this extraordinarily closely," Hills­borough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner said. "If our expectations are not met, and this doesn't meet my approval, I am not going to be supporting it at the end."

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