Day: Wider roads are not the answer for traffic-clogged Tampa

Published June 26 2015

A nearly 20-year-old plan to further expand Interstate 275 through historic Tampa Heights is the source of great upset for many Tampa residents.

The City Council recently voted to oppose the project. Other opponents of the plan, many of whom have invested heavily in rehabbing homes in Tampa Heights, are voicing their discontent at meetings around the city. And preservationists are perturbed because the highway expansion plans would likely obliterate a community garden and a church-turned-community center that recently underwent a $1 million renovation.

But the garden and community center are the least of this neighborhood's problems. Plants can be uprooted and reset. Even the old church can be moved. But decades of unimaginative transportation planning that is overly reliant on road expansion is harder to derail.

Starting in the late 1950s, construction for I-275 barrelled through Tampa, bisecting neighborhoods and ripping holes through neighborhoods such as the historic Central Avenue business district, Seminole Heights and West Tampa. Years later, expansion gobbled up the West Tampa Boys & Girls Club. More recently, another project came through, opening new lanes from downtown Tampa to West Shore. Drivers will acknowledge that project opens up traffic — at least for a few miles. But in exchange for a few minutes of smooth driving for commuters, Carver City residents got a spectacular view of a nearly 30-foot-tall ramp, constant noise and traffic that skirts dangerously close to their property.

With this track record, it's no wonder residents of Tampa Heights and neighboring Seminole Heights are putting little stock in the Florida Department of Transportation's promise to take care of them as it expands I-275 again, this time to add express lanes for drivers who are willing to pony up. The department has shown little compassion as it has bulldozed through neighborhoods before in the name of progress. This project is shaping up to be a repeat performance.

The department's plan, based on a 1996 study, calls for the addition of express toll lanes and new interchanges, which would knock out several properties, including the renovated church. And there's the rub. There is a real traffic problem in Tampa and surrounding counties. And there are no easy answers, especially when creating a true multimodal transportation system seems but a mere pipe dream.

More than 100,000 commuters travel on I-275 through Tampa every day. Like me, many live in the suburbs and love it but clog roadways as they drive to work. People in close-in neighborhoods such as Tampa Heights, the city's first suburb, feel they should be rewarded for revitalizing once-struggling areas and not punished with never-ending road projects that will please commuters and leave in-town residents inhaling exhaust. Let me tell you an open secret: Few are happy with the state of transportation in this town, regardless of their ZIP codes. This realization should bind urban, suburban and out-of-county dwellers.

In the latest face off between neighborhoods and new highway construction, it's hard to find a single villain. I want to blame the DOT for always thinking roads first. (By the way, officials say this planned expansion should be the last — in our lifetime — and must be done to accommodate a transit corridor.) I want to blame voters, who continue to block funding for a robust mass transit system, and planners and politicians who don't provide more substantial plans. And what of residents who sink money into a site like the former church, knowing its ultimate fate is demolition?

But playing the blame game gets us where we are right now. Stalled. Let's all agree that something beyond road widening and halfhearted attempts at improving bus service needs to be done. I'm being careful not to mention the r-word (as in light r---) because that alone is not the answer. But neither is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. That's the definition of insanity.

Sherri Day is a Tampa Bay Times editorial writer.

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