TAMPA — The state has spent six months telling people it's re-evaluating a $6 billion expansion of Tampa Bay's interstates, including controversial toll lanes.
Transportation officials scrapped their original plan, held a series of public workshops and even renamed the project.
But the Florida Department of Transportation continues to buy land intended for the toll lanes and other aspects of the expansion that are supposed to be on hold.
Critics say those property buys make it hard to believe the state has any intention of considering alternatives to easing the interstate bottleneck from Ybor City through downtown Tampa and into the West Shore business district.
"You can't in one moment tell us the project is in reset and that all other options are now on the table and in the next moment tell us you're still acquiring properties secondary to the original plan," said Rick Fernandez, president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association. "Those two things put together simply don't make any intellectual sense to me."
More than a dozen people raised this concern during a transportation meeting earlier this month. Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization board member Trent Green agreed with community members who called for the DOT to halt any land grabs related to the project.
"I think continuing the acquisition of private property is tremendously destabilizing to the existing communities," Green said.
There is $317 million planned for property buys between now and 2022, all of which is in the West Shore area, DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said. No money is allocated for the downtown interchange area, where much of the protest is focused, but DOT director of transportation development Bill Jones said the department could use other money for that if a seller came forward.
Opponents such as Fernandez said the department shouldn't be buying property at all, whether it's a willing seller in West Shore or anywhere else, until the community has approved a new plan.
The project formerly known as Tampa Bay Express or TBX called for 90 miles of toll lanes along Interstates 4, 75 and 275. To build the tolls, the cost of which would rise and fall based on demand, the state would need to buy between 300 and 400 homes, businesses and pieces of vacant land around downtown Tampa and West Shore. Critics say the plan devastates urban neighborhoods like Ybor City and Tampa Heights in order to ease regional commutes.
Former DOT Secretary Jim Boxold put the plan in reset mode in December, and officials gave it a new name in May: Tampa Bay Next.
Toll lanes are still planned for Pinellas, the Howard Frankland Bridge and along I-4 east to Plant City under Tampa Bay Next. The department insists it's reviewing alternatives for the contentious spans along I-275 in Hillsborough. But that's not stopping DOT from buying land there within the original TBX footprint.
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DOT has already spent more than $56 million on properties in downtown Tampa and the West Shore area since 2014. Most of that, about $45 million, went to buy a nine-acre plot where Charley's Steak House and the Doubletree by Hilton Tampa Airport — Westshore currently stand. DOT plans to use that land for a transit hub for buses and rail.
The 31 parcels DOT bought also include the $8.8 million purchase of Tampa Presbyterian Village, an apartment complex near Blake High School that was home to several generations of poor and working-class families. More than 300 residents moved in 2015 to make way for the reconstruction of Interstate 275's downtown interchange.
They also include homes in Tampa Heights and Ybor City that are now boarded up and stand empty as DOT takes the next couple of years to finalize its plans.
Officials are considering everything from the previously proposed toll lanes to light rail to a relatively new concept known as a boulevard. That option involves tearing down I-275 north of downtown Tampa and rebuilding it at street level with more options for transit, bicyclists and pedestrians. Examples around the country include Canal Street in New Orleans and Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Regardless of which plan is chosen, DOT officials say something still needs to be done to fix that part of the highway.
"The interchanges, no matter what option we choose, they need to be reconstructed," Jones said. "We want to be in the best position possible to actually implement whatever option we choose, because Tampa Bay needs a solution as soon as we come to consensus."
The amount of land needed for the reconstructed interchanges could vary depending on what option is chosen. For example, the blueprint for toll lanes versus a street-level boulevard is different. But Jones said buying the property now allows DOT to start building as soon as a decision is made. If DOT owns more land than necessary, it has the option of putting that property back on the market or finding another community-wide use for it.
But that explanation doesn't sit well with some of community members who have seen properties DOT already bought in historic neighborhoods become worn-down and grungy.
"You end up with a house or business that is boarded up and goes derelict in a relatively short period of time, and it winds up being a weight on the neighborhood," Fernandez said. "There's absolutely no telling how long that situation will continue. Until there's a plan, we continue having FDOT-created blight."
Without an identified footprint, Fernandez said, it doesn't make sense to further damage neighborhoods. And he said it certainly doesn't build trust with a community that has been skeptical of the DOT since the project was rolled out.
DOT officials stress that the department is only buying land from willing sellers, and that it's not taking land through eminent domain, as sometimes happens with road projects. Jones said the department has only been approached by one seller in the downtown area since last summer.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.