Hillsborough County did the right thing this week by moving ahead with Tampa Bay Express, the state's controversial and costly plan for improving the region's interstate system. While TBX has flaws that need to be addressed, it made no sense at this early stage to reject billions of dollars in state transportation improvements. By keeping TBX alive, local leaders have created space to work with the state on improving TBX, softening its impact on area communities and augmenting the road work with new investments in mass transit and neighborhood design.
Hillsborough's Metropolitan Planning Organization voted 12-4 to retain TBX in its long-term plan after a marathon meeting that ended early Thursday. The plan calls for remaking I-275, I-4 and I-75 (partly with express toll lanes), fixing interchanges and building a new northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge. The MPO acknowledged reality with its lopsided support; these roads are already badly congested, and they need a serious and timely fix if this region is to grow, compete and retain its quality of life.
While TBX has polarized some business leaders and neighborhood activists, the public hearing that drew hundreds of people and scores of speakers exposed a budding middle ground. TBX is not the cure-all that some advocates claim, and it doesn't have to be the neighborhood-killer that many opponents fear. There is room here to build a larger interstate but rethink its design. That requires an honest assessment of the role the interstates play in the region and an appreciation for the urban renewal in Tampa that has strengthened the inner city tax base.
County Commissioners Sandy Murman and Kevin Beckner, who took opposite sides in the MPO vote, strengthened the plan Thursday by pushing through measures that call on the state Department of Transportation to be more open and deliberative about ways to lessen the impact of the construction and expand mass transit. By approving these amendments unanimously, the MPO increased its negotiating hand with the DOT, setting the right expectations as the conversation over design and scale of the highway unfolds over the coming year.
Neighborhood activists will lose this battle if they frame the debate exclusively as a policy choice between roads and mass transit, or as a red line against suburban sprawl. The interstates are where they are, and they are not moving. The land development patterns are already in place, and residents and businesses need better regional connectivity. On the flip side, business interests should recognize the huge stake Tampa has in fostering the urban renewal taking place in Seminole and Tampa Heights and the Ybor area. The two sides have more in common than it appears, and they should unite in improving TBX, from challenging the size of the interstate's footprint and the DOT's planned use of toll lanes to pushing for stronger commitments on mass transit spending.
The MPO's decision is only the start of a serious conversation about TBX. By seeking common ground, the local community can build the essential state support for a modern and truly balanced transportation system.