TAMPA — Despite widespread criticism, expanded interstate highways remain part of Hillsborough County’s long-range transportation plan.
The decision, from a divided Hillsborough transportation board, came Tuesday night after a public hearing on a $3.6 billion, five-year state-coordinated program of rebuilt bridges, improvements to the Port of Tampa, wider roads, new highway interchanges, transit, bike trails and freight rail lines.
But it was the idea of what to add to that list in future years, so-called priority projects, that brought the most disagreement at a meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization. The 16-person board — elected county, municipal and school board officials plus appointed members — sets transportation priorities in the county. The debate they heard has been going on since 2016.
“Every year this is a tough meeting,‘' said Plant City Mayor Rick Lott after listening to nearly 90 minutes of public comment.
Most of the fuss surrounded two future items, both of which call for adding lanes to Interstate 275. The five-year plan included $40 million for adding lanes in both directions to the interstate between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Hillsborough Avenue. Construction could start in 2023, said district Transportation Secretary David Gwynn. But a separate, unfunded project calls for eventually widening an 8-mile stretch of the highway north to Bearss Avenue.
The other partially-funded project calls for spending an estimated $50- to $70-million to alter the downtown interchange, including a second lane on the southbound flyover ramp connecting I-275 to Interstate 4, reconfiguring the I-4 eastbound exit to Ybor City, and widening the I-275 entrance ramp for westbound traffic on I-4. The state said it currently is refining conceptual designs for the project.
Some citizens wanted a different outcome for the project: Kill it.
“They really add no values to our home, no value to our businesses,‘' said Shane Ragiel, president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association, who said he lives four houses away from the flyover to I-4.
Widening the interstate, previously dubbed Tampa Bay Next by the state Department of Transportation, is outdated, speakers said, particularly in light of reduced commuter traffic from the work-at-home economy brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It continues to damage neighborhoods, the environment, our health, and disproportionately drains transportation funds away from more critical local needs,‘' said Michelle Cookson, a Seminole Heights resident representing Sunshine Citizens, a group opposing the expanded interstate.
Others noted the citizens advisory committee to the Metropolitan Planning Organization voted earlier this month to excise the Tampa Bay Next items from the transportation plan. They called on the group to follow the advice of the citizenry. The ongoing demonstrations for social justice also should be recognized, opponents said.
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“Urban interstates are 20th Century monuments to segregationist policies. In Hillsborough County, they destroyed, relocated and marginalized minority communities and communities of concern,‘' said Rick Fernandez, a member of the citizens advisory committee and the Tampa Heights Civic Association. “... In this moment, our transportation needs and our needs for social and environmental and economic justice come into perfect alignment.‘'
It was a familiar refrain among opponents, who pointed to the urban neighborhoods, traditionally home to minority communities, that were damaged by the interstate’s construction.
Tampa’s interstate highway system is “in effect, a gigantic confederate monument. You should treat it as such.‘' said Douglas Jesseph, a professor of philosophy at the University of South Florida.
But the transportation plan had plenty of supporters, too. Speakers from the Tampa Bay Partnership, Tampa Bay Chamber, Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, Tampa Downtown Partnership and Westshore Alliance all asked the planning group to adopt the plan as proposed. Improving the highway infrastructure is key to the proposed bus rapid transit system and other multi-modal improvements, they said, to ease congestion and improve safety.
Commissioner Pat Kemp tried to remove the plan to widen the interstate to Bearss Avenue, but her amendment failed on an 8-7 vote with Commissioner Ken Hagan not voting. Her amendment to remove reconfigured interstate ramps into Ybor City, part of the downtown interchange renovation, failed 10-6. The board eventually adopted the transportation plan on a 13-3 vote with Kemp, Commission Chairman Les Miller Jr., and Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco dissenting.
One speaker said the board should rethink the notion of adding more highway lanes.
“You do not have a traffic problem. You have a design problem. The system actually is designed to fail,‘' said Catherine Hartley, a former county planner.
She suggested changes to the county’s land development code to include requiring new developments to contribute to a grid system and to stop allowing private roads that serve few residents.