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Protesters march through Tampa as they call to stop TBX toll road project

Rick Fernandez, 61, of Tampa Heights, wears a mask while holding a sign to protest the TBX expansion on Saturday morning, April 23, 2016 in Tampa Heights. The proposed expansion would cost over $9 billion and take up to 15 years to complete. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Published Apr. 24, 2016

TAMPA

Julie and Andy Harris stood arm-in-arm, gripping anti-TBX signs, on the corner just before the overpass near E Palm and N Lamar avenues Saturday.

The Seminole Heights couple wasn't just protesting the multibillion-dollar Tampa Bay Express highway expansion for themselves, but also for Julie Harris' elderly parents. If everything goes according to the state's plan, the home Julie Harris, 56, had moved into with her parents when she was just 3 months old will be demolished to make way for the tolled express lanes.

"Relocation isn't a real option," Andy Harris said of his in-laws, ages 90 and 86, "because it's a fight for their lives."

Andy Harris, 58, said he thinks the mounting stress of their home's likely destruction could kill them.

"TBX is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing," he said.

Most of the 75 people who gathered Saturday for an afternoon march to protest the expressways don't have homes or businesses that could be swept away by the expansion. But they don't see TBX as a solution for the city or as the way to combat congestion. They'd rather see billions go toward a transit system.

So, they marched in the streets through the neighborhoods where houses would need to be removed to make room for the state's $3.3 billion plan.

Florida Department of Transportation officials say TBX will help reduce travel time and offer congestion-free and reliable trips.

Tampa's Sunshine Citizens planned the roughly mile-and-a-half route that took people through Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights and Ybor Heights. Protest leaders highlighted parts of the neighborhoods that made way for Interstate 275 and sit snugly up against busy roadways or under overpasses.

The county's most avid transportation advocates held signs with TBX crossed out in red with the phrases "no widening, no destruction, no tolls" underneath. The group chanted "Stop TBX," "Transit not tolls" and "Hey, hey, ho, ho, TBX has got to go."

Some wore white masks over their mouths to call attention to Hillsborough County's air quality, which they said is poor because of the area's reliance on automobiles.

"TBX helps suburban real estate developers and construction firms," said Seminole Heights resident Doug Jesseph, 56. "They say they want to help traffic, but it will only encourage urban sprawl."

DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year that the "not-so affectionately called Malfunction Junction" downtown interchange needs to be rebuilt to relieve local and regional traffic buildups. She said express lanes are an integral part of that system.

In Seminole Heights, a house already acquired by the state was boarded up. Nearby, a massive billboard facing the interstate sat close to a resident's back yard.

"Do you want to see more of that?" asked Sunshine Citizens' Chris Vela as the group walked by. "Because you will with TBX."

As the group walked its route, neighbors cheered.

The state's plan will require the DOT to buy 140 homes and 30 businesses to make way for the highway expansion, which is still about five years off — depending on how soon the department gets the billions it needs in financing. The DOT has said it's working with residents to manage the impact on their neighborhoods.

Protesters said TBX would destroy the city's urban core.

"I want you to think about what used to be here and what could be here," protest leader Jason Ball said as they walked along the interstate's wall in Tampa Heights.

On June 22, the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization can approve a list that includes TBX project funding — or can remove it as a priority.

Julie and Andy Harris will be there. She built her home close to her folks' 30 years ago so she could take care of them. She tries to spare her father from troubling developments.

"But I can't keep him from watching the news," she said.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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