TAMPA — Despite impassioned pleas from scores of residents, Hillsborough County's road planning agency Tuesday night voted to keep a controversial project to expand Interstate 275 on its five-year list of funding priorities.
The Metropolitan Planning Organization, whose board includes local elected city and county officials, heard more than two hours of public comment before voting on the list, a recommendation to the Florida Department of Transportation and legislators.
But County Commissioner and MPO Chairman Les Miller attached some conditions to keeping the project on the list.
The FDOT, he said, would have to re-evaluate its 20-year-old study justifying the project, work with the community to ease the project's impact on urban neighborhoods and work with Tampa to explore more opportunities for pedestrian travel, cycling and transit on Florida Avenue and Tampa Street.
If the FDOT doesn't do those things, Miller said he would make the motion to yank the project from the list when it returns in November or May.
"You have to work with this community," Miller told FDOT officials. "We can't have what happened in the '60s," when the interstate was built with no public hearings or community input."
The vote came after an overflow crowd of well over 100 residents from Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights, downtown apartment towers and other neighborhoods, plus the Sierra Club, urged the MPO to take a stand against the Department of Transportation's planned Tampa Bay Express project, often simply referred to as to TBX.
Opponents called the project a "monster," saying it would destroy historic structures, hurt communities, decrease the ability to walk around neighborhoods and perpetuate a transportation network built around cars.
"TBX is short-sighted, too costly and solely focused on highway widening to the detriment of urban core historic neighborhoods in the heart of our city," said Michelle Cookson, secretary of the anti-TBX group Sunshine Citizens. "It will only lead to more single-occupancy vehicle congestion."
Not yet funded, the $3.3 billion Tampa Bay Express plan would add tolled express lanes from the Gateway area of St. Petersburg to Bearss Avenue in Tampa. The lanes would be meant to provide a faster ride for drivers willing to pay a toll that would fluctuate as traffic got heavier or lighter. Currently, state law allows for a toll of up to $10 for drivers in express lanes. No trucks would be allowed, though school and transit buses would be able to use the lanes for free.
As part of the project, the FDOT would spend $1.8 billion rebuilding and expanding the downtown I-275 interchange — a plan that has stirred up a hornet's nest of opposition.
In Tampa Heights, rebuilding the downtown interchange would mean demolishing the former Faith Temple Missionary Baptist Church building. The FDOT owns the building and has leased it to Tampa, which, in turn, leased it to the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association for use as a community center and garden.
The FDOT has said work could start within five years if it gets funding.
A state official said the new interchange is needed not only to move traffic in nontolled lanes and put in the express lanes, but to include room for future transit alternatives.
"I've lived here for 25 years, and the downtown interchange has always been called Malfunction Junction," said Debbie Hunt, the director of transportation development for the FDOT district office in Tampa. "It has to be rebuilt."
Hunt said the Department of Transportation — resented in Tampa's urban neighborhoods because of the disruption caused by the construction of the interstate — is committed to listening to residents as it moves forward with Tampa Bay Express.
"We're not the old DOT that just comes in and plops down roadways, like it or not," she said. "We work extensively with the communities that are impacted."
Opponents didn't buy it, with one Seminole Heights resident describing the original construction of I-275 as "the wound that never healed."
"I listened to the presentation by DOT, and I could close my eyes and hear the same words that I heard in 1980," said Tampa Heights civic leader Lena Young-Green, the lone member of the public to speak when the MPO considered the project in early June. "It's not right that an area gets torn apart in order to accommodate commuters and moving other people around."
But not everyone was opposed. Speaking in support of the project were representatives of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Westshore Alliance, Tampa Bay Innovation Alliance, Tampa Bay Partnership and the development team for Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.
"If we're going to grow our economy and compete with all the other regions that we talk about, we've got to have connectivity," said Mark Sharpe, a former county commissioner and executive director of the Innovation Alliance.
But Cookson said, "TBX is the exact wrong choice for a city and region" that could "drive an unprecedented economic boom" by making a commitment to many different modes of transportation.
"With car-focused-only TBX as our choice, this region will never be viewed as top-tier," she said.