TAMPA — Florida Department of Transportation officials hinted they might have a surprise for Thursday's City Council meeting, and they delivered.
FDOT District 7 Secretary Paul Steinman said the state is offering to work with the Hillsborough Regional Transit Authority and pay for a feasibility study of regional mass transit options, such as light rail or commuter rail.
"We've got a lot of different people who have done pieces of things, but no one's ever tried to bring it together," he said.
Steinman's offer was several hours before but unconnected to Thursday's discussion of potential transportation plans and funding by city and county officials engaged in the Go Hillsborough initiative.
"That's great," City Council member and HART Chairman Mike Suarez said of the offer. Regardless of what happens with Go Hillsborough, he said, "we need FDOT to be a partner in order for us to get anything done."
Before Thursday, the offer had not been presented to HART or discussed publicly, so it came as news even to council members plugged into transportation issues.
"I was so taken aback, I couldn't say anything," Lisa Montelione said.
Steinman said the idea for the study came out of the community meetings that the FDOT has started holding on the controversial interstate expansion project known as Tampa Bay Express, or TBX. People there have told FDOT officials they want alternatives to car-centric solutions like TBX.
That said, the FDOT is not backing off its plans for TBX. The multibillion-dollar project would expand the downtown "Malfunction Junction" interchange, replace the Howard Frankland Bridge, rebuild Interstate 275's interchange at State Road 60 and add tolled express lanes to interstates 4, 75 and 275 in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
"I think those pieces are very much necessary," Steinman said. But "I don't think it's an either/or situation."
Montelione urged Steinman to pursue putting commuter rail on railroad tracks that CSX now uses to move freight but has offered to make available for commuter rail.
That would be part of the study, Steinman said, but local and state officials have to be careful about what they emphasize early on. If it appears that the outcome is pre-determined, it could hurt the area's ability to compete for federal transit funds.
"You could put everything in jeopardy by not following the process," he said.
Details of the study, including its cost, how long it might take and whether it would be combined with a study now under way on prospects for expanding Tampa's downtown street car line, need to be worked out with HART, he said.
Despite the offer, opponents kept their focus on TBX, which they called an ill-conceived boondoggle based on outdated assumptions. They said FDOT officials are pursuing a plan that would hurt neighborhoods that have never quite recovered from the original construction of I-275 and I-4 decades ago.
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"They seem hellbent to destroy unique, irreplaceable urban assets, our core neighborhoods," said Michelle Cookson, a Seminole Heights resident who is secretary of the nonprofit, anti-TBX group Sunshine Citizens.
And unlike Steinman, some TBX skeptics do want to choose between transit and TBX.
"I can't seem to wrap my head around TBX," said council member Guido Maniscalco, who voted against funding for the project as a member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Maniscalco said TBX threatens to open "unhealed wounds" in neighborhoods. Instead, he said, FDOT should put the money it plans to spend on TBX into rail or other transit alternatives.
"In order to save money," he said, "let's invest in something else."