Florida continues to improve its plan for modernizing the interstate system in Tampa Bay. The Florida Department of Transportation has unveiled four new options for rebuilding I-275 near downtown Tampa, and some of them would ditch previous plans for toll lanes downtown while keeping express lanes for faster, pass-through traffic. The DOT also continues to work in good faith to incorporate public feedback into Tampa Bay Next, the larger, controversial project for remaking 90 miles of regional interstate. These developments indicate state transportation officials are listening and better balancing the region's growth, economy and quality of life.
The presentations Monday offer the clearest suggestion yet that the DOT could change its approach after announcing a "reset" on the project last year. Officials said at the meeting that most new proposals do not include previously planned toll lanes for the downtown I-275/I-4 interchange. Downtown-area residents have objected to the toll plan for years, saying it would burden commuters, force interstate traffic onto local roads and reinforce car travel instead of promoting mass transit. This change in thinking doesn't mean that toll lanes are out or that the DOT has given up on enlarging the highway footprint. But for the first time the department has suggested express lanes could be built that drivers would not have to pay tolls to use, and that is a step in the right direction.
The four proposals floated this week are conceptual. One closely resembles the original plan and calls for express lanes along the downtown interstates. A second option rebuilds the downtown junction and eliminates express lanes north of downtown. Two others add elevated express lanes through downtown, but neither would rebuild the downtown interchange. Toll lanes are being reconsidered under all four, and even express lanes without tolls would have limited entrance and exit points to keep pass-through traffic moving. Motorists driving east toward Tampa on I-275, for example, could use express lanes to bypass downtown and reach I-4 more quickly.
The DOT is looking to generate more public support for Tampa Bay Next. It renamed the project, brought in new leadership and reopened a federal study that could lead to a smaller footprint along the interstate. Officials are still examining how mass transit will be folded into the plan, and the signs are encouraging. The DOT also has moved quickly in recent months to address several concerns; it agreed to speed improvements to the interstate near the West Shore business district and to put a hold on land-buying for the interstate plan near downtown Tampa. These are all the right decisions that should make for a better project and help bring the opposing sides together.
Tampa Bay Next is a vital step toward improving the region's transportation system. But the DOT made a mistake presenting it as a take-it-or-leave-it project. These new plans and new spirit of openness have already helped to move support for the project along considerably over the last year. There still are important questions about tolls, the size and role of the interstates, state support for mass transit and the plan for regional connectivity. But the community's concerns are being heard and considered, the strategy for moving vehicles is more efficient and the DOT is recognizing the larger picture in transit planning. The "reset" is on the right path.