TAMPA — For many, Wednesday's regional transportation meeting was a dose of deja vu.
More than 150 community members gathered at a Florida Department of Transportation meeting to weigh in on the future of transportation in Tampa Bay.
The talking points were all the same as they have been in the past: Urban core resdidents called for transit, Tea Party members chafed at any mention of rail, and DOT officials held to the agency's commitment to build express toll lanes.
Many in the community had come ready to debate the merits of toll lanes and DOT's rebranded campaign, Tampa Bay Next. But though the new logo adorned handouts and Power Point slides, no mention of the project, or its predecessor Tampa Bay Express, known as TBX, was made in the introductory remarks.
Instead, the conversation centered on broader terms, like regional connections and neighborhood values. The plan was to divide into 20 smaller working groups and discuss what an ideal transportation network would look like.
That's when the questions started.
"Are we going to hear about more plans for this project?" one woman asked.
"Are the ideas and plans going to be created based on this or have they already been created?" a man added.
But Wednesday was not about unveiling plans, DOT officials said. It was about listening.
"Tonight is about getting together, brainstorming ideas and finding a way to move forward," said Danielle Moran, a consultant to the DOT.
But for toll lane opponents who had sat through two years worth of community meetings for TBX, it felt less like moving forward and more like a repeat of the dozens of meetings some opponents referred to as "charades."
"This feels like more of the same, and it's very frustrating," Seminole Heights resident Julie Harris said. "It just sounds like they've already made up their minds."
That's not at all the case, said DOT director of transportation development Bill Jones. The point is to listen and to reach consensus within the community.
Some common themes emerged as the groups reconvened and shared the visions created in their small groups: safe options for walking and biking, transit, autonomous vehicles and economic development.
Toll lanes weren't mentioned.
But then Moran took the microphone. "We're looking at other options, and we'll talk about this a little bit more, but express lanes are one of the options on the table."
Many in the crowd booed. Some hissed.
"It's like deja vu," said TBX opponent Rick Fernandez. "You have to wonder if they're really listening."
That was the question dominating many of the conversations: Are DOT officials sincere when they say they want community input?
Some said they have started to see a change. Seminole Heights resident Kimberly Overman and former Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione said that there are a few things this time that give them some hope that DOT is listening.
"This is definitely different," Montelione said. "The folks who work here locally I think really are genuinely engaged with this effort."
But the concern, she said, is whether those in DOT's Tallahassee offices, including a new DOT secretary, will agree with a community-led plan.
"The local, on-the-ground team here is listening," Overman said. "It's whether it's going all the way up the chain."
Ultimately, several present Wednesday said they won't trust that this phase is any different until they see those changes represented in a new plan.
DOT consultant Len Becker said the differences will show through once DOT starts rolling out projects that the community supports.
"Trust is built with time," Becker said. "To me, this is all about follow through."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.