TAMPA — Federal authorities will conduct a preliminary civil rights investigation of Tampa Bay Express, a proposed project by the Florida Department of Transportation that would expand the region's interstate highway system by adding toll lanes
State transportation officials claim the $6 billion project, dubbed TBX, will help motorists avoid congestion on what are now freeways — Interstates 4, 275 and 75. But they would do so only by paying a toll to use "express lanes" that will be built over the next few years.
According to emails between federal officials and critics of the highway plan, the U.S. Department of Transportation first received a complaint last month. Just last week, the Federal Highway Administration's office of civil rights agreed to start a preliminary investigation based on the complaint, which was filed by Matthew Suarez, a designer for a local construction firm.
A member of Sunshine Citizens, a group that opposes TBX, Suarez alleges that the express lanes would benefit affluent commuters, tourists and businesses, but does great harm to minorities. His complaint says that officials are prioritizing the "needs and interests" of the West Shore business district, Tampa International Airport, the Tampa central business district and land developers at the expense of the general public.
The project promotes the affluent, Suarez wrote, "ahead of those relating to people of various races and national origins, in addition to people of color who are to be directly and adversely impacted."
When TBX was announced last year, it was almost immediately met with opposition. The plan calls for a new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge, a revamped interchange at Interstates 275 and 4 and, most controversially, miles of toll lanes that run from Pinellas Park across to Plant City, north toward the University of South Florida and south toward Manatee County. These toll lanes cost money each time a driver uses them and are seen by transportation officials as a way to ease congestion.
But the project also calls for the state to buy hundreds of homes and businesses to make room for new flyovers, retention ponds and sound walls. Although the acquisition of homes will happen across the region, the plans are furthest along in Ybor, Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights.
Suarez, whose family came from Cuba, said his relatives were displaced by the 1960s construction of I-4 and I-275 in Tampa Heights. He claims a standing under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits agencies that receive federal money from discriminating based on race, color or national origin.
Federal authorities have used this provision to investigate allegations of discrimination across the country: the closing of driver's license offices in Alabama; a controversial interchange plan in Wisconsin; and bus service in Memphis.
Word of the civil rights investigation was celebrated by local critics, particularly those connected with Sunshine Citizens. They and others are trying to stop TBX from moving forward and say that it harms minorities by gutting their neighborhoods in favor of white suburbanites who can afford to use the toll roads.
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"This is GREAT NEWS," wrote Lena Young, a prominent member of the movement, to supporters. "We are winning!"
Kris Carson, an FDOT spokeswoman, said the agency wasn't aware of the investigation or the complaint. She said Suarez, "has challenged the plans for Tampa Bay Express in many ways. We are responding to each one as appropriate."
Times reporter Anthony Cormier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @Cormier_Times.