TAMPA — Hillsborough County leaders voted Tuesday to move forward with a plan to add 90 miles of toll lanes to Tampa Bay's interstates despite continued opposition from the people whose neighborhoods would be impacted the most by the project.
The Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization — a 16-person board which approves transportation projects — listened to more than 3½- hours of public comment on its Transportation Improvement Program, which lists the county's priorities for the next five years.
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The TIP includes dozens of projects, from road maintenance to bike paths. But the evening's debate centered around only one project: Tampa Bay Next, the interstate expansion formerly known as Tampa Bay Express.
The vast majority of speakers urged the board to remove Tampa Bay Next from the TIP, but the board voted 12-3 to approve the five-year plan as is — with toll lanes. Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan was not present for the final vote, which took place around 10:30 p.m.
"There's no construction for the most contentious parts of this project until years and years and years from now," said Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen, who said he had concerns about Tampa Bay Next but voted to approve it anyway. "I believe we're in a better place today than we were a year ago. I'm just not willing to pull the plug on that."
About 60 people spoke at the public hearing required to approve the TIP each year. Tuesday's meeting lasted more than four hours — only half of the length of the marathon 2016 meeting which didn't end until nearly 2:30 a.m.
About a dozen speakers were in favor of Tampa Bay Next, which, like its predecessor TBX, aims to add express toll lanes to Interstates 275, 75 and 4.
But the plan has been met by a vocal and organized opposition because it will require bulldozing homes in minority neighborhoods around downtown Tampa. The toll lanes have also been decried as "Lexus lanes" because their costs rise and fall based on traffic, and could cost commuters up to $2 a mile.
That opposition continued Tuesday, as most of the people who addressed the board wanted the proposal removed from the county's transportation list altogether.
"To the extent that any TBX related projects still appear as priorities in our TIP, they should be gone," said Rick Fernandez, a member of Sunshine Citizens, which opposes toll roads and interstate expansion.
Fernandez and many others who spoke against Tampa Bay Next pointed to former Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold's call last year ago to reset the TBX process.
In October, DOT officials scrapped plans to replace a free lane on the Howard Frankland Bridge with a toll lane when it is scheduled to be rebuilt in 2019. Then in December, Boxold told a Florida Senate committee that it was time to "reset" TBX, reevaluate the plan and improve cooperation with the community.
When DOT rolled out Tampa Bay Next last month, officials said it would include options other than tolls, such as transit, bike and pedestrian facilities. It was not, DOT's local officials said, simply a rebranding of TBX.
Many who spoke Tuesday were not convinced.
"We're either in a new day or we're not," Fernandez said. "If TBX is still in the TIP, everything to do with this new plan is still a shell game."
More than $300 million is allocated in the next five-years for land buying for Tampa Bay Next. The plan also includes money to rebuild the Howard Frankland — which is reaching the end of its lifespan and will soon be structurally deficient — and for construction along I-275 between the West Shore interchange and downtown Tampa.
Tampa resident Amanda Brown said it's impossible to trust that DOT is open to new options when money is still being allocated for Tampa Bay Next.
"More than anything, we have seen that Tampa Bay Next is still TBX," Brown said. "We don't feel (the state is) acting in good faith."
Like dozens of others, she urged MPO members to remove Tampa Bay Next projects from the five-year plan, which also includes money for road maintenance, intersection improvements, county buses, bike paths and cross walks.
The MPO board is comprised of elected officials from Hillsborough County, the cities of Tampa and Temple Terrace, and includes representatives from Tampa International Airport, the school district, and others local entities.
Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco and Hillsborough County Commissioners Les Miller and Pat Kemp voted against approving the five-year plan.
"I still can't wrap my head around why we need these express toll lanes," Maniscalco said. "I choose to stand with the citizens."
About one in five speakers Tuesday advocated for Tampa Bay Next, which they said provides transportation options for the business community, brings additional highway capacity and includes the much-needed reconstruction of the West Shore Boulevard interchange.
The project also includes plans for express bus and potentially other transit options, supporters said. A vote in support of Tampa Bay Next is not a vote against transit, said Mike Peterson with Greater Tampa Realtors.
"We need to be funding both our interstate system and our region's transit needs and they don't need to be mutually exclusive," Peterson said.
Several MPO members said approving the TIP with Tampa Bay Next projects in it allowed them to keep refining the plan instead of scrapping it completely.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman and Tampa City Council member Luis Vierra expressed trust in the new DOT local leadership and hoped that the turnover would lead to increased collaboration with the community. Two key district DOT officials have resigned since last hearing: Secretary Paul Steinman and director of transportation development Debbie Hunt.
Vierra said he hopes that by approving the TIP, it will allow the state time to alter the plan to include more transit options and less toll roads. He said he'll also be watching DOT closely to see whether they're actually taking community input seriously.
"If we see the plan next year or the year after and it still has express toll lanes, there's going to be some explaining to do," Vierra said. "But I think we've got to keep that dialogue going."
Tampa Bay Partnership president Rick Homans said that Tampa Bay Next has evolved to include a variety of different options, not just toll lanes. Tuesday's vote, he said, keeps that project alive and allows that evolution to continue.
"This was a good step forward tonight," Homans said. "They were voting for collaboration, and they were voting to continue the process."
Michelle Cookson, spokeswoman for Sunshine Citizens which opposes Tampa Bay Next, said the it was encouraging to see all speakers Tuesday, including those supporting Tampa Bay Next, calling for more options other than just the toll lanes.
"It's evident our efforts have moved this conversation to where it's needed to be — transit and mobility first," Cookson said. "We are more committed than ever."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.