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Why won’t a Black neighborhood park in Tampa get a wall to block I-275 noise?

State offers visual buffer, but full sound protection is out for Robles Park.
A planned widening of Interstate 275 north of Interstate 4 includes sound barrier walls all along the way, except at Robles Park. Some Hillsborough County officials have a problem with that.
A planned widening of Interstate 275 north of Interstate 4 includes sound barrier walls all along the way, except at Robles Park. Some Hillsborough County officials have a problem with that. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 12
Updated Jan. 12

TAMPA — Robles Park is a 17-acre patch of greenery amid urbanized Tampa that includes a pond, walking trail, playground, baseball diamond, basketball court and community center.

What it doesn’t have, at least for the time being, is a barrier wall to protect youngsters and outdoor enthusiasts from noise and air pollution generated by the traffic whizzing by on Interstate 275. The highway runs parallel to the park.

Original plans for the ongoing widening of I-275, from near the Interstate 4 interchange north to Hillsborough Avenue, showed barrier walls everywhere else along the 2.5-mile corridor — except at Robles Park.

The missing link along the park, which sits west of the highway between North Avon and North Elmore avenues, grabbed the attention of Hillsborough’s Transportation Planning Organization members because of the area it serves. The park is just south of the Robles Park Village public housing complex.

“The fact that this is a predominantly Black neighborhood and we would not be putting up a proper wall ... it’s just unbelievable,” said Commissioner Pat Kemp, chairperson of the transportation planning group.

In a meeting Tuesday, the group of elected and appointed officials asked the state Department of Transportation to fill that gap. They want the department to meet with community members to determine what type of barricade they would prefer.

Related: I-275 expansion work in Tampa to begin

The highway construction began in October. The contractor, Lane Construction, is adding a lane in each direction of I-275 between the I-4 interchange and Hillsborough Avenue. The $85.3 million project is expected to be completed in early 2026.

State traffic counts from 2020 — compiled during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic — measured approximately 144,500 vehicles traveling on that portion of the interstate each day.

A project map provided by the department shows a mix of 14- and 8-foot tall walls on both sides of the highway, running from Hanna to Floribraska avenues, except at Robles Park.

“Not everything makes logical sense, but (the department) is following the federal guidelines,” David Gwynn, Florida’s regional transportation secretary, told the planning board in October.

The park vicinity does not qualify for a 14-foot tall noise wall, commonly seen on highways elsewhere, because the federally approved environmental study accompanying the current construction showed insufficient “benefitted noise receptors” in the park, said Justin Hall, an environmental and planning manager for the state Department of Transportation’s Tampa Bay region.

What that means, observed Commissioner Mariella Smith, is that noise walls are intended to block sounds from reaching people’s homes, but not a neighborhood park.

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Completing the noise wall along the park would cost an estimated $1.4 million, but federal and state dollars could not be used, said Hall and Gwynn.

If the city and county don’t want to pledge their money for a noise wall, the Department of Transportation proposed building visual barriers ranging from an 8-foot tall masonry wall to a 10-foot vegetation-covered metal trellis to landscaped hedges or trees. The concrete wall, costing about $440,000, could be added to the current construction project. The trellis, priced at $504,000, or landscaping, at an undetermined cost, would have to be installed as part of a separate proposal.

The options, said Hall “basically are anything in our design guidelines that doesn’t say ‘noise barrier.’ "

Separately, the Federal Highway Administration allows U.S. dollars to be spent on so-called retrofit sound walls when the road noise affects neighborhoods that pre-date the highway’s original construction. But, the federal rules also require the states to administer the program by using density, traffic volumes and other data to prioritize individual projects.

The program is not mandatory and Florida does not participate.

In an August letter, Beth Alden, executive director of the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization, asked the state Department of Transportation to reconsider.

“This portion of I-275 was built through established neighborhoods in the 1960s. The neighborhoods south of Busch Boulevard remain unbuffered from noise and emissions. Several of these neighborhoods include concentrations of minority residents or low-income residents, protected under the executive order on environmental justice (signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994). These residents may have access to fewer resources to recover from the chronic health impacts that are statistically linked to living in proximity to high traffic volumes,” Alden wrote.

The department did not respond, Alden said.

The transportation planning organization told her to try again.

The missing wall didn’t sit well with Kemp, who said that skipping protections for Robles Park repeated the attitudes accompanying the original construction of the highway.

“They just put the road right through Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. That’s always been the issue,” said Kemp. “It tore these areas apart and now we’re compounding that equity issue in this day and age.”