TAMPA — A plan to add express toll lanes to Interstate 275 found few friends Tuesday night among Seminole Heights residents who said state transportation officials are focusing on commuters when they should be focused on communities.
"This project has been developed by the Florida Department of Roads, not the Florida Department of Transportation," Seminole Heights civic activist and business owner Kimberly Overman told DOT officials during a standing-room-only meeting at the Seminole Heights Branch Library.
"It is looking for ways to expand roads rather than access transportation options," she said. "You might be well-suited to consider developing a transit system that actually works with the bus system and would allow for less destruction of the urban core."
Not yet funded, the $2 billion Tampa Bay Express plan would add tolled express lanes from the Gateway area of St. Petersburg to Bearss Avenue. The lanes would provide extra capacity for cars whose drivers were willing to pay a variable toll, based on congestion.
The busier the time of day, the higher the toll, said Kirk Bogen, an environmental management engineer with the DOT. Currently state law allows for a toll of up to $10 for drivers in the express lanes. No trucks would be allowed, but transit buses and school buses would be able to use the lanes free.
"What we're proposing to do is come in and build a project that should help move people and goods better through the region," said Debbie Hunt, the director of transportation development for the DOT district office in Tampa.
Opponents, however, call the lanes "Lexus lanes" that would offer easier driving to the wealthy while forcing less-affluent motorists onto congested lanes.
In Seminole Heights, where about 149,500 vehicles a day use I-275, the state plans to start with one express lane in each direction.
Residents, however, called for other options and questioned the DOT's ability to deliver on its promises. Bogen said state officials are looking at putting noise walls and other buffering in with the project.
Residents, still resentful about the way the original construction of I-275 split Seminole Heights in half, said they had heard that kind of promise before. But the noise is still there.
At times, the residents' skepticism spilled over into questions, challenges and interruptions called out from the floor.
Please, said Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, who organized the meeting. "You can't communicate and yell at each other."
In addition to adding the express lanes, the project would rebuild I-275's interchanges into downtown and at State Road 60 where northbound traffic from the Howard Frankland Bridge comes into Tampa.
Unless the downtown interchange is improved, Hunt said, it won't accommodate a transit corridor.
"We don't preclude transit in the least," she said. "What we're saying is based on the numbers, for this area, we need all of it."
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But residents of Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights say the project would exact a heavy price on their neighborhoods.
In Tampa Heights, the project would mean demolishing the former Faith Temple Missionary Baptist Church building. The DOT owns the building and has leased it to the city of Tampa, which, in turn, leased it to the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association for use as a community center and garden.
Currently, the state has not appropriated construction money for the project. The DOT has said work could start within five years if it gets funding. Officials said community meetings will continue into next year.