Thursday, January 18, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: St. Louis may hold answers for Tampa transportation, but not the ones FDOT thinks

No doubt St. Louis is probably a lovely place to visit. The toasted ravioli is supposed to be the cat's pajamas.

And so when a delegation of Tampanians sojourned to The Gateway City days ago, one can only hope everyone got what they wanted out of the trip. Learning how not to royally tick off large swaths of the city might be a good start.

The trip, organized by the Florida Department of Transportation, also included local politicians, business figures and especially community residents who are at some risk to seeing their neighborhood imploded should the proposed Tampa Bay Express project to expand Interstate 4/Interstate 275 lanes, including toll lanes in and around East Tampa, Seminole Heights and downtown Tampa. The TBX project had the potential to disrupt communities that in recent years have begun to enjoy something of an urban renaissance, as well as displace many minority neighborhoods.

It seems St. Louis embarked on a similar effort years ago to rebuild I-64 through the city, which also confronted considerable community opposition. And thus it was wheels up to Missouri to see how this stuff can get done without causing open revolt in the streets.

TBX generated a cacophony of protest almost from the moment it was announced with various community groups showing up at public meetings to defend their neighborhoods. Expanding lanes was certainly one issue. Another point of bitter contention revolved around FDOT plans to create a toll lane that would charge drivers as much as $2 a mile, while also sacrificing one free lane. This was sort of the transportation equivalent of tearing down the old Tampa Stadium and replacing it with Hellooooo Sucker! Field for the Tampa Bay Bucs with 10,000 fewer seats while calling it a "community stadium."

"It (TBX) started off probably not as well within the community as they would have liked either," FDOT's Tampa Bay secretary Paul Steinman told the Tampa Bay Times before the St. Louis trip. Gee, do ya think?

Apparently, St. Louis resolved some of its issues with local residents in the spirit of greater communication and compromise. What? You have to travel all the way to St. Louis to figure that out?

To be sure, the greater Tampa Bay region is growing and so are our roadways. There isn't much of an argument the area needs to address its legendary (and well deserved) reputation for having one of the most horrible, dreadful, obsolete transit/road systems in the country.

It is also true that in the course of expanding the transit grid homes and properties will probably have to be sacrificed. It may not be fair, but it is true.

Steinman also noted St. Louis worked with local communities to find ways to expand I-64 as well as complement the surrounding neighborhoods. That sounds just peachy.

But here's the thing. Imagine being a homeowner in Seminole Heights and one day an official from FDOT shows up and says: "We're very sorry but we have to take your house for a public works project."

Perhaps you've invested thousands of dollars to rehab your home and now it is a showcase. You now live in a highly regarded neighborhood filled with trendy cafes, bars and boutiques. And you've been a part of that revival. And now you're being told you need to get out.

And for what? So FDOT can pour more concrete, to build more lanes that will only become just as congested as the current status quo. If you are going to be asked to sacrifice your home, shouldn't it also be for a greater good that includes mass transit and enhanced bus routes? You know, just like real big cities do, like the nearly 50-mile St. Louis Metrolink light rail system.

Now that would be worth visiting.

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