The debate surrounded an application for a $1.2 million federal grant. But the real issue was whether to study the long-discussed but highly remote possibility of tearing down Interstate 275 north of downtown Tampa and replacing it with a street-level boulevard.
In the end, the boulevard concept stalled and likely is headed to the scrap heap..
The Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization, elected and appointed officials overseeing transportation planning, killed the grant application Wednesday on an 11-5 vote. Three Tampa City Council members, Joseph Citro; Guido Maniscalco and Lynn Hurtak, dissented, as did Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp and School Board member Jessica Vaughn.
The planning board authorized applying for the federal Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program last year after its citizens advisory board had pushed the idea for several years. But the state’s transportation secretary for the Tampa Bay region, David Gwynn, said he was unaware of the grant proposal and raised objections to the application in December after being contacted by the Federal Highway Administration.
“It’s our road,” he said then. “I feel embarrassed to have to say to FHA, ‘No, we weren’t coordinated with. We don’t know.’”
The debate continued at the board’s Jan. 11 meeting.
“I don’t believe it’s ever going to come to a point that anyone is going to recommend tearing down I-275,” said Hillsborough Commissioner Harry Cohen.
Commissioner Gwen Myers, however, suggested it would be embarrassing to the county to receive the grant and then return it.
But, the board then called for another meeting Wednesday after it learned from the federal government that examining the teardown had to be included in the study. Several residents asked the panel to continue.
Rick Fernandez, chairperson of the citizens advisory committee, seized on Myers’ prior comment.
“Seeking money through a federal program to help study and envision a new future for Tampa’s urban core, and the highway infrastructure it has supported for 60 years, is not a cause of embarrassment. On the contrary, the grant, if awarded, may help to reveal one or more bright spots on our transportation horizon: A way forward that does not involve more and wider roads bifurcating communities,” Fernandez said by email.
But, resident Jim Davison of New Tampa called tearing down the interstate “a fairy tale.”
Gwynn repeated his objections, noting the highway carries up to 180,000 vehicles daily, serves regional commuters and freight trucks from Port Tampa Bay and doubles as an emergency evacuation route. Knocking it down would mean “widening every other north-south road within miles of the highway,” he said.
Others argued that the study should be pursued because it would include ideas on how to enhance connectivity at highway overpasses.
“The people that are most affected … are the people that live along the interstate system,” said Citro. “In my opinion, every option needs to be explored. If we leave anything on the table, we have let the citizens, living alongside our interstate systems, down.”