TAMPA — The Florida Department of Transportation has an image problem, and new hires within the agency are trying to fix it.
For years, the department was known for its antagonistic relationship with the public, which peaked with the Tampa Bay Express highway expansion. That project was quashed after a public outcry, and multiple leaders were replaced. Now, the agency is trying to move forward and rebuild trust in the community.
A new district secretary who is viewed as more open helps. So do events like a listening tour the state organized in West Tampa on Friday. Department heads and engineers boarded a bus with community members in hopes of developing relationships and learning more about the neighborhood.
The tenor of the current department is a far cry from the 2015 and 2016 Tampa Bay Express days, which were marked by a "take it or leave it" attitude.
"This was an agency that came to us with a prepackaged solution and no real room for discussion," said Rick Fernandez, president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association. "We were little more than an afterthought in a grander scheme."
That's changed in the past two years, Fernandez said. The state announced a "reset" of Tampa Bay Express and in 2017 rebranded its efforts in the area as "Tampa Bay Next." The new name came with more than half-dozen staff changes, including the arrival of district secretary David Gwynn, who took over in July 2017.
"They do seem genuinely interested in trying to listen," said Tampa Bay Express opponent Kimberly Overman, who was recently elected to the Hillsborough County Commission. "Which is light-years away from the FDOT we used to know."
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The bus on Friday was filled mostly with department employees and consultants. A handful of community members, several of whom grew up in West Tampa, sat near the front with Gwynn. They pointed out problems they'd like fixed and history they'd like preserved.
As the bus rolled down N Willow Avenue near the interstate, they spied the retention pond that often fills with trash.
"That's our retention pond, there?" Gwynn asked. He knew the department was having an issue with its maintenance crews, and made a note to check on the status of the property.
It was one of the few sentences the secretary said in the nearly 90-minute tour. This was a listening tour, and that's what he was going to do.
Next, the group came across one of the overpasses where the interstate cut through the neighborhood.
"We'll show you why we need better lighting, Secretary Gwynn," lifelong resident and engineer Joe Robinson said. "The lights are all up there on the road. There's nothing down here in the so-called walking community."
Many of the projects people highlighted didn't fall under state jurisdiction, but it was still helpful to hear about them, Gwynn said. The department often partners with the city and county, and having an understanding of the community's overall vision and desires helps the state on a macro level, he said.
Robinson and others praised the neighborhood's history and cultural fabric. They pointed out the cigar factories and the brick roads, along with century-old buildings and some of the best Jamaican food in the area. Robinson wanted officials to see the good in the neighborhood, not just the road plans and diagrams.
"A lot of the times we're looking at aerials, but then you get down here and see and hear the history of it," Gwynn said. "As we get closer with some of these concepts, it might be good for us to come out again and talk a little more.”
Robinson thanked Gwynn and other staff for taking the time in the community. It was good to put faces to the names, he said.
"You know I'm one of FDOT's biggest critics," Robinson told the group earlier. "But I love the fact that we're finally getting some communication and dialogue."
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State officials weren't always so willing to engage.
The agency's $6 billion highway expansion was met with almost instant pushback when unveiled in May 2015. People felt the project came out of nowhere, with no public input. State officials cited origins from the 1990s. Two years of contention followed.
It wasn't uncommon during that time to attend a transportation meeting and see the seat designated for the district secretary or overseer of Tampa Bay Next empty. Calls to the office's public information number would go straight to voicemail. At one public meeting, a staff member sat in the back and snickered at comments from crowd.
In 2016, members of the county's transportation planning group requested the state do more to engage the public. But those meetings, too, had a tone of dismissal. When people made suggestions that didn't fit the state's already crafted plan, they were told those ideas would go in "the parking lot."
"It was basically putting your idea in time-out," Fernandez said. "It was the closet they could come to saying, 'We won’t hear anything that doesn't involve the plan we proposed.' You weren't allowed to speak about anything else."
A forced reset from Tallahassee and new hires worked to change that mentality.
Richard Moss stepped in as director of transportation development in April, a role that directly oversees Tampa Bay Next. Moss was aware he was moving into an "antagonistic relationship between FDOT and the public" and knew work needed to be done.
That's why the district continues to plan events like Friday's listening tour, Moss said. The department did a similar tour in East Tampa, along with walking with community members through the neighborhoods of MacFarlane Park, Armory Gardens and West Shore Palms. Officials went door-to-door in Tampa Heights, VM Ybor and Historic Ybor seeking input.
"It's important for us to be there with locals," Moss said. "We need to listen as they show us what's important to them."
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Not everyone on the bus tour was impressed.
Hillsborough County NAACP president Yvette Lewis watched as they turned through the neighborhood streets. While others on the bus praised progress and economic development, she saw a history of demolished properties and exclusion.
"Give something back of what you keep taking around us," Lewis said. "You're constantly taking, taking, taking."
Her comments extend to everybody — the state, the city, the wealthy homeowners who move in and outprice others who can no longer afford the rising rent.
Elaine Illes, a historic preservation consultant, shared a seat with Lewis and listened to her concerns. Illes noted some of them were at odds with what Robinson and others on the bus called for. She encouraged Lewis to continue to speak up, saying every new administration change is an opportunity to start fresh.
"Hopefully they listen to you, then, because they're not listening to us," Lewis said.
The state agency has made strides since the Tampa Bay Express backlash, but some are worried it could turn at any point.
Fernandez said each morning he wakes up, he's still afraid a Google Alert will notify him of some change in the department that hurts the community.
"As of late, it seems as though we’ve kind of gone back to, 'Here are the white boards of what we’re going to do. Take your choice,'" Overman said. "It's not as much of a conversation."
Some in the community will always be skeptical of the state's intentions and willingness to work with the public, Overman said. Still, she believes officials have made a greater effort at transparency. She said she sees less aggression in how the state interacts with the public.
"There was a level of arrogance in the past that I think has either gone away or at least subsided," she said. "There's now at least a desire for greater collaboration with the communities. …
“Let's hope that lasts."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.