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Is opposition to TBX's toll roads sapping support for Go Hillsborough's transportation options?

Linda Saul-Sena, former Tampa City councilwoman, speaks to the crowd during a protest against the TBX expansion, which would expand the Interstate through Tampa's historic neighborhoods, on Saturday morning, February 6, 2016 in Tampa. [ZACK WITTMAN  |  Times]
Linda Saul-Sena, former Tampa City councilwoman, speaks to the crowd during a protest against the TBX expansion, which would expand the Interstate through Tampa's historic neighborhoods, on Saturday morning, February 6, 2016 in Tampa. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Published Feb. 14, 2016

TAMPA — Tampa Bay Express, the state's $3.3 billion plan to add tolled express lanes throughout the bay area, has sparked fiery protests and fierce rhetoric from the residents of the Tampa neighborhoods that would bear the brunt of expanding the downtown interchange.

Meanwhile, Go Hillsborough, the county's proposed referendum to raise $117 million a year for transportation projects, has endured a brush with scandal, barely passed a vote from local leaders endorsing the half-cent sales tax option … and has since disappeared from the public radar.

Could the two phenomena — the almost weekly anti-TBX protests and the barely visible support for Go Hillsborough — be linked?

Hillsborough County's most avid transportation activists argue that many of those who support Go Hillsborough are tied up trying to stop the behemoth express toll lane project from rolling into Tampa.

In short: TBX seems to be sucking the oxygen away from Go Hillsborough.

"A lot of people who are passionate about a more connected urban community are spending a lot of time protesting the existential threat, TBX, instead of focusing on Go Hillsborough," said Kevin Thurman, executive director for transit advocacy group Connect Tampa Bay.

Brian Willis, a transit activist who is running for a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission, said it comes down to time and resources.

"A lot of people involved in the Stop TBX movement are a lot of the people supporting transit and Go Hillsborough as well," Willis said. "It's a stretch to do both. … There's only a limited amount of people and energy and hours in the day."

In many ways, the constituencies are the same. Those who hate to see the city's urban neighborhoods torn apart by the Florida Department of Transportation's multibillion dollar TBX road project are also the same ones who yearn for the expanded bus service, bike and pedestrian improvements and ever-elusive light rail option represented by Go Hillsborough.

While both projects have the potential to dramatically transform the landscape of Hillsborough County, the toll lanes present the more imminent challenge, Willis said.

"Right now, the leaders don't even know what's in their own plan," Thurman said of Go Hills-borough. "That's the big difference. FDOT is already taking action.

"This is a very different and much more immediate threat."

And it's one with a more direct and tangible outcome. It's easy to get people riled up about the potential loss of their homes or treasured community assets. Ask them to support a sales tax whose details are still amorphous and shifting, and apathy abounds.

"People are passionate about their neighborhoods not being affected," Thurman said. "It's easier to get people excited about defeating something … that's why it's harder to push a sales tax than it is to stop something from being built."

But other transportation advocates don't see it that way. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and former City Council member Linda Saul-Sena fall on opposite sides of the TBX debate, but neither sees a connection between the maelstrom generated by TBX and the lack of public support for Go Hillsborough.

While Buckhorn is for the advancement of both TBX and Go Hillsborough, Saul-Sena adamantly opposes the state toll road project but has not yet decided whether she'll support the county's sales tax referendum.

"It's not a linear correlation," Saul-Sena said of support for Go Hillsborough and opposition to TBX. "It's like saying if you watch (late night talk show host Stephen) Colbert, you'll vote for Barack Obama."

Instead, Saul-Sena attributes the recent silence surrounding Go Hillsborough to a lack of enthusiasm. Some transportation advocates like Saul-Sena were disappointed to see the plan scaled back from a full cent to a half-cent tax, with not nearly as much money as they'd like dedicated to transit.

"The conversation now has shifted so significantly from its original aspirations that I think a lot of people are very ambivalent," Saul-Sena said. "I can't speak for others, but I'm feeling very ambivalent."

Buckhorn is a bit more optimistic.

"I think the TBX issue is separate and distinct from Go Hillsborough. I think people are just waiting for the resolution of the procurement issue," said Buckhorn, referring to a sheriff's investigation into the project's contract for public outreach. "I think once that's resolved … there will be a very robust discussion about moving forward and how this campaign cranks up."

The latest timeline for county commissioners to vote on whether they'll put the referendum on the ballot sets an April deadline (four months after the originally promised December 2015 date).

If that passes, both Willis and Thurman expect to see the pro-transit community shift its focus from TBX to making sure voters approve Go Hillsborough in the November election.

"When we reach a point where they have a plan and people are reacting to it, then you'll find a significant amount of people who are against TBX to be for (the referendum)," Thurman said.

"It's all part of a broader fight. How do we make our area more urban and successful and give people options of ways to live? It's the same coalition."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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