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  1. Transportation

Tampa Bay Express interstate project slammed as one of the nation's 12 worst

Published Jan. 19, 2016

TAMPA — A new report with a national scope calls the controversial Tampa Bay Express interstate expansion one of the 12 worst highway projects in the United States for expanding roads to little benefit.

The report, "Highway Boondoggles 2," was produced by the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group's Education Fund and a public affairs research firm, the Frontier Group.

Tampa Bay Express, or TBX, was the only Florida project included in a roundup that included interstate widening in Connecticut, express lanes in North Carolina and a tunnel in California's San Gabriel Valley.

On Tuesday, opponents who say TBX will require the demolition of homes and businesses in urban neighborhoods like Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights welcomed the report.

"What we have here is the classic definition of a boondoggle," said Bill Newton, deputy director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, based in St. Petersburg. "It is a waste of taxpayer money."

Not yet funded, the $3.3 billion Tampa Bay Express plan would:

• Add tolled express lanes to Interstate 275 from the Gateway area of St. Petersburg to Bearss Avenue in Tampa, as well as to parts of Interstates 4 and 75 in Hillsborough County. Drivers wanting a faster ride would pay a toll — now capped at $10 by state law — that would fluctuate as traffic got heavier or lighter.

• Rebuild and enlarge two I-275 interchanges — one at State Road 60 in West Shore and the Malfunction Junction interchange in downtown Tampa. The downtown interchange has an estimated cost of $1.8 billion.

• Leave a big enough gap in the interstate median to accommodate "premium transit," the Florida Department of Transportation term that could include some form of rail. What form, FDOT officials say, will depend a lot on what local governments decide they will pay to operate.

• Replace the northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge. The new span would be engineered to allow for the addition of light rail, something that Pinellas County has already determined through an alternatives analysis.

The FDOT has said work could start within five years if it gets funding.

In Tampa Heights, rebuilding the downtown interchange would mean demolishing the former Faith Temple Missionary Baptist Church building, which was where opponents gathered Tuesday to release the report.

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.

One criticism the report makes is that FDOT has acknowledged that adding the express lanes won't solve congestion problems. What agency has said repeatedly is that the area needs, as one transportation official said last year, "all of it" — the interstate expansion, plus transit.

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That's why, they say, they included space in the interstate median for future transit projects.

"We're building exactly what we said we were going to build," said Debbie Hunt, the director of transportation development for the FDOT's district office in Tampa. That includes general purpose lanes on the interstate, express lanes and space for transit. "That has never changed since we did the original study" in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The report also said the projects it criticized arise from flawed projections of future need that don't take into account transportation alternatives increasingly favored by commuters, especially millennials.

"Look at the future of transportation," Newton said. "Is it really cars stacked up on the interstate? Companies like Google certainly don't think so. They're building a new model — driverless vehicles — that's not going to fit what this thing is doing at all."

But FDOT officials say the plans for Tampa Bay Express are based on sound projections of traffic volumes.

"Yes, it dipped with the recession, but it's coming back really fast and increasing," Hunt said in a recent interview.

"We expect it to still reach projections two years later than originally projected, but we're still going to experience the growth in the congestion that we've been anticipating for years," she said. "The city continues to approve development, the county continues to approve development, and the surrounding counties for the region continue approve development."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.. Follow @Danielson_Times