TAMPA — An unexpected scene played out at the Florida Department of Transportation's local office on Thursday.
It started with a simple exercise in collaboration. It ended with a hug and literal mic drop.
For more than two years, Tampa has been a community divided. Tampa Bay Express, a $6 billion project to expand the region's interstates by adding up to 100 miles of toll lanes, was the line in the sand.
Business leaders and government officials stood on one side. Community members — especially from the urban neighborhoods threatened by construction — stood on the other.
About two dozen people from those opposing groups gathered Thursday to discuss a two-day trip they took to St. Louis last month. The federally funded peer exchange aimed to bridge the discord between state officials and the community. The goal was to learn from Missouri's experience in bridging that community's gap over a controversial road project.
"It became abundantly clear that we needed much more community engagement than what we've had," said DOT director of development Bill Jones.
Rick Fernandez has been a vocal leader of Sunshine Citizens, a group that vehemently opposes TBX. He has spoken at countless government meetings, including one that spanned eight hours and stretched into the early morning.
On many of those occasions, he has approached a dais and made his plea to elected officials: "Please, don't build this project." He'd then return to his seat and wait while the other side made their rehearsed request, urging officials to approve the project.
Most of the time, that side included Rick Homans, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a group representing some of the area's biggest businesses.
Both individuals were on the St. Louis trip. Fernandez's biggest takeaway? Having real conversations during the trip with the people he has spent two years arguing with, he said, changed his perspective about them.
"The only thing I've thought of, Rick, every time I've seen you in the last few years was, 'How is he going to try to screw me tonight?' " Fernandez said. "Then there was that brief shining moment in St. Louis by the bar when we had a chance to just talk person to person. I don't think my head will explode next time because of that. And there's some benefit to that."
Homans responded by crossing the room and giving Fernandez a hug.
Others laughed. Some clapped. The DOT official leading the discussion actually dropped the microphone. It was a symbolic gesture in a two-year debate that has had few lighthearted moments.
Fernandez still opposes TBX. It's a bad plan with a bad premise, he said. But he's willing to sit at the table and try to find a way forward. And for the first time in years, he said, he thinks the DOT is making an attempt to listen.
"Cautiously optimistic is the best thing you can say right now," Fernandez said. "I at least feel like we're open to discuss other things and that's a big, big difference from where we've been the last two years."
They continued that discussion Thursday. One at a time, participants tossed out terms describing what they thought the area needed to focus on when considering transportation projects: Community values. Cost. Neighborhoods. Alternatives. Collaboration. Respect.
It was a simple, but deliberate, exercise by the state. The message? We're here to listen.
"These are all your words," said DOT official Alice Price. "This is all non-DOT input."
It's all part of the TBX "reset" former DOT Secretary Jim Boxold called for in December. The St. Louis trip was one of the first steps. Upcoming community engagement meetings, starting May 24, are another.
While Fernandez and fellow Sunshine Citizens member Chris Vela said they've noticed a change in the DOT's willingness to discuss other options, there's still concern that all these discussions won't lead to actual change.
"I'm just highly skeptical," Vela said. "I think we're seeing a pushback from the community, and hopefully FDOT will take this opportunity to really listen."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.