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  1. Transportation

Goodbye Tampa Bay Express, hello Tampa Bay Next; but toll lanes aren't going anywhere

The Florida Department of Transportation on Monday announced it was renaming its Tampa Bay Express plan “Tampa Bay Next.” DOT officials said the point of the rebranding is to show there’s no longer a predetermined plan — this time, state officials said they want to involve all stakeholders in drawing up a new plan. Workshops will be hosted to gather community partners and work together on a comprehensive solution for the Tampa Bay region, according to DOT officials.
Published May 23, 2017

TAMPA — Tampa Bay Express is dead.

The name, that is. But its replacement — Tampa Bay Next — includes several of the same projects once proposed for TBX, such as the express toll lanes on the rebuilt Howard Frankland Bridge.

The Florida Department of Transportation unveiled the brand Tampa Bay Next on Monday to replace the controversial TBX, which has faced steady community backlash.

DOT officials said the most controversial aspect of the old TBX plan is still under consideration: spending $6 billion to add 90 miles of toll roads to interstates 4, 75 and 275, which are all currently free of tolls. Any projects that were part of TBX will be considered under Tampa Bay Next, DOT officials said, along with alternatives.

"The department — right, wrong or different — two years ago focused on express lanes as the method of solving congestion in the Tampa Bay Region," said local DOT secretary Paul Steinman. "What people are saying is they want to see the department reach out and look at all the potential solutions . . . so that all opportunities are considered."

Express lanes will still be built in some parts of the Tampa Bay region, officials said. But the purpose of Tampa Bay Next is to make sure other options — such as transit, bike lanes and creative road solutions — are included in the plan.

Opponents of TBX aren't impressed. Until the department takes the project out of the five-year work plan and stops acquiring property, this new marketing campaign is no different, said Michelle Cookson, secretary of Sunshine Citizens, which opposes the plan.

"I don't see that much that has changed," Cookson said. "If they have some plan they can show me where they're not going to devastate the heart of this city and roll everything over us, I'd be interested in seeing that."

But the point of the rebranding, officials said, is to show there is no longer a predetermined plan. Instead of dictating a project to the community, like with TBX, this time state officials said they want to involve all the stakeholders in drawing up a new plan.

"We're not coming to the community with the solutions, we're coming to talk about the problems," said DOT consultant Danielle Moran. "They're part of determining what the solutions are."

But TBX opponent Rick Fernandez said it feels like just a sales job. If toll roads remain a significant part of the new plan, he said it won't matter what DOT calls it.

"If it's the same old plan," he said, "they could call it Rodeo Drive and it wouldn't matter."

DOT officials said it's frustrating to hear that kind of criticism. The agency has spent months trying to retool a plan it thought was nearly finished.

"If the department didn't really care about what these communities valued . . . why would I have even be having these meetings?" Steinman said. "If I was going to do what I planned on doing, I would have just gone and done it."

All of DOT's recent efforts — postponing the express toll lanes, holding community meetings, unveiling Tampa Bay Next — have been done in response to requests from elected officials in an eight-hour public hearing on TBX last June, Moran said.

Though the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, the county's transportation planning group, approved TBX last year, it did so with serious concerns. MPO members asked DOT to look at new data, wait for a regional transit study to be finished and to update an environmental study from 20 years ago that was used to launch TBX.

"Everything that was asked for at the June meeting last year, this is a result of that," Moran said.

Tampa Bay Next will kick off at a community workshop Wednesday evening at the Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Center in Tampa. DOT officials said the goal is to gather community partners and work together on a comprehensive transportation solution for the region.

Express toll lanes aren't going away, but the ongoing working groups will decide whether all 90 miles of toll roads that was originally envisioned are still needed.

Under Tampa Bay Next, DOT is still planning express lanes for the Gateway Connector in Pinellas, the Howard Frankland Bridge and I-4 and the Selmon Expressway Connector. Florida's Turnpike Enterprise is adding express lanes to portions of the expanded Veterans Expressway toll road.

But the future of the express lanes planned along I-275, from the bridge through the University of South Florida — including the Westshore and downtown Tampa interchanges — is dependent on the conversations that take place at community workshops over the next several years, Steinman said.

There's no end-date for these community meetings, Jones said. As they continue, DOT will map out incremental projects that have received community consensus.

This new approach puts the department about two years behind its original schedule, Steinman said, to start construction on TBX's I-275 toll lanes around 2021.

"When people propose something, we're going to look at it," he said. "I'm not saying you're always going to get what you're asking for, but we're going to look at what the best opportunities are as we sit here and reopen this thing."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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