Opponents of Tampa Bay Express were quick to dismiss the announcement by Florida's Department of Transportation last week that it was renaming the controversial plan to rebuild the area's interstate system. But changing the name from TBX to Tampa Bay Next is more than a rebranding effort, and regional leaders and activists should take this opportunity to build state support for a more multimodal approach to solving the region's transportation needs.
The change came in response to criticism of TBX's road-centric approach, and signaled the DOT would be more inclusive in its planning and more open to rail and other forms of mass transit as part of the region's future. As originally envisioned, TBX called for rebuilding the area's interstate system, building a new northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge and creating 90 miles of toll lanes across the west coast of Florida.
Even under the new name, Tampa Bay Next still includes several controversial proposals, including express toll lanes on the bridge and tolls in sections of Interstates 4 and 275, downtown Tampa and around Tampa's West Shore business district. But the new plan hedges by declaring the DOT is "evaluating" most new express lanes, and the new plan underscores that any interstate improvements must be made "in the context of a comprehensive regional transportation system." That's government shorthand for balance, and it's a step forward in assuring that mass transit will play a larger role in moving this region's 3 million people.
The change in language is more than it appears, and it is the clearest indication yet of what DOT had in mind when it announced a "reset" of the plan in December. The state is going to lengths in calling for "a truly integrated, multimodal regional transportation system," and it is promoting the pitch that "transit and roads work together." There is no reason to doubt the agency; it has extended the timetable for making key decisions on transit modes, and — helpfully — handed the $6 billion project off to Gov. Rick Scott's successor, which alone should be encouraging to transit supporters. Opponents of TBX now need to figure out how to run with a win and make Tampa Bay Next deserving of broader public support.
Whatever this project's name, roadway expansion will be part of any solution. The DOT can build public faith by moving to fix the dangerous bottlenecks in the West Shore area even as it works with local governments on new mass transit options. Here again, the timetable is helpful, as two ongoing studies are already examining whether to expand Tampa's downtown streetcar and to build a regional rail system.
The DOT needlessly burned its credibility early on by plowing ahead with TBX without input or buy-in from the cross-section of the community that would be most affected. It's the agency's job to demonstrate that this new incarnation, Tampa Bay Next, is more than a marketing exercise. That certainly seems the case. But the state will need to bring hard commitments and money to the planning table. Likewise, those opposed to TBX need to recognize that roads will play a part, that the interstates are where they are, that a solution must be multimodal and that Tampa Bay Next might work.
The public needs a chance to be fully heard and for options beyond tolled lanes and highway construction to truly be on the table. The plan must be forward-looking and consider the value being either added or destroyed to these communities through the various transit modes. The one option that's unacceptable is to stay put. The state and the region need to move ahead with Tampa Bay Next in the spirit it was proposed and offer a range of transit options where they work best.