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Lawmakers endorse pausing Tampa Bay Express plan, but not stopping it

The state halted its plans for the Howard Frankland Bridge in October after angry local officials realized that the toll lane would replace an existing lane, rather than add a new one.
Published Dec. 19, 2016

TAMPA — Lawmakers are doubling down on promises from the state to pause plans for Tampa Bay Express. But those same lawmakers have not made any moves to pull funding for the controversial toll road project.

The Hillsborough legislative delegation was poised to spend much of its meeting Friday discussing TBX, but that changed after Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold told a Senate panel earlier this week that he wants to "hit the reset button" on the project.

Boxold was scheduled to make an 11 a.m. presentation during the delegation meeting, but that was cut from the final agenda. The chairman of the delegation, state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said the decision was made to save time during the six-hour meeting.

Lee also asked the 19 people scheduled to speak about TBX during public comment to select a representative or two and consolidate their comments. However, many still chose to sit through more than five hours of discussion in order to have their say.

"The issue has been kicked down the road a bit," Lee said. "I don't even suspect that this issue will come up during this current governor's term in office. That doesn't make it any less significant for your communities."

Lee reiterated Boxold's desire to re-evaluate TBX during Friday's delegation meeting, calling the secretary's comments "quite unusual" and a "significant admission" that the $6 billion plan to add express toll lanes to Tampa Bay's interstates needs to be revised.

"Look at the 30-year history of the department and find cases where this kind of a significant about-face or pause has been done by the department," Lee said after the meeting. "It doesn't happen very often, and it's emblematic of a department that recognizes that they need to do a better job of positioning this project."

However, Lee said there has been no discussion to pull the project from the department's work program, which means the state will continue to fund early stages of the plan, such as land acquisition.

That concerns TBX's opponents. They continued their call for the Florida Legislature to step in and halt the project that would impact 90 miles of the region's highways running through Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

"As of now, it's still being funded in our work program and will be up in front of you guys this session for more funding," said Amanda Brown, a member of Sunshine Citizens, which opposes TBX. "Until we see a promise of what this means and that they will listen to us and stop destroying our communities, we will continue to come up and oppose this project."

Boxold could not be reached for comment Friday. Earlier this week, he said TBX is needed to improve the region's transportation system, but first DOT's relations with local residents and leaders need to be strengthened. He said the department would spend the next two to three years addressing the deficiencies of TBX.

This doesn't change TBX's timeline, however. The Howard Frankland Bridge replacement, which was the earliest start date for TBX projects in Hillsborough County, was scheduled to begin in 2019. Other parts of the project, including changes to the West Shore and Tampa downtown interchanges, were not scheduled to start until 2021 at the earliest.

"I think we all got excited just for a brief second but then realized it didn't necessarily mean anything," said Chris Vela, president of Sunshine Citizens. "Nothing has changed."

The northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge needs to be replaced soon. It was built in 1960 and is nearing the end of its lifespan. Lee said he has had several conversations with Boxold and other DOT officials and has not heard a new timeline for the bridge outside of the proposed 2019 start date.

However, based on those conversations, he does expect that the new bridge will have more lanes than previously expected.

The state halted its plans for the Howard Frankland in October after angry local officials realized that DOT planned to take away a lane for drivers who did not want to pay a toll. Local politicians were under the impression that DOT was adding lanes to the bridge for the tolls, not converting an existing lane.

State officials realize improvements must be made when it comes to the capacity of the bridge and interactions with the community, Lee said.

"I know they recognize that they have an aging, dysfunctional facility in the Howard Frankland Bridge," Lee said. "My guess is, based upon conversations we've had, when that project is finally built, it will have more lanes than we expect it to have today."

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

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