Advertisement
  1. Transportation

Officials: Will Tampa Bay Express get money we want for other priorities?

A study on whether to expand the MetroRapid express bus service offered by the Hillsborough Regional Transit Authority was one project proposed by the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization to be paid for with federal highway funds. But in its tentative five-year plan, the Florida Department of Transportation did not include any of the $2.5 million that the MPO requested for the MetroRapid study. MPO executive director Beth Alden said the agency doesn't expect to get all of its requests funded, but it seemed like this year more projects fell out of the list than local officials are used to seeing.
A study on whether to expand the MetroRapid express bus service offered by the Hillsborough Regional Transit Authority was one project proposed by the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization to be paid for with federal highway funds. But in its tentative five-year plan, the Florida Department of Transportation did not include any of the $2.5 million that the MPO requested for the MetroRapid study. MPO executive director Beth Alden said the agency doesn't expect to get all of its requests funded, but it seemed like this year more projects fell out of the list than local officials are used to seeing.
Published Oct. 30, 2015

TAMPA — Could the massive interstate construction project known as Tampa Bay Express siphon money away from smaller projects like faster bus service and bike lanes?

That's a concern three elected officials raised this week after seeing the Florida Department of Transportation's tentative five-year work program.

In particular, they questioned FDOT's proposal to earmark $4.6 million in federal highway funds for Tampa Bay Express, often called TBX.

A long-range, multi-billion-dollar effort, TBX calls for adding tolled express lanes to Interstates 4, 75 and 275, improving I-275's flow of traffic coming from the Howard Frankland Bridge into Tampa and expanding downtown's "Malfunction Junction" interchange.

The $4.6 million in federal funds in question is just a sliver of the $522 million FDOT plans to budget in Hillsborough for TBX in its plan, which goes through mid-2021.

Still, Tampa and Hillsborough officials noted, the plan doesn't include any funding for some projects requested by the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, and they want to know why.

"I did not get, to me, a clear answer as to why this is going on," Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller Jr. said.

The question of whether money is being shifted from locally important projects to TBX came up during a meeting this week of the MPO's Policy Committee. Among other things, the MPO's staff said its requests for FDOT's plan included:

• $300,000 for a study of Tampa's "Green Spine," a multipurpose trail from the V.M. Ybor neighborhood through downtown and out to West Tampa.

• $2.5 million for a study about expanding the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority's MetroRapid bus service.

• $1.4 million for an advanced traffic management system on N Dale Mabry Highway.

• $518,000 for walking and bike safety improvements on Floribraska Avenue.

None of those would be funded in FDOT's five-year plan.

"It needs to go into things that we could do now," Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman said of the federal money earmarked for TBX. The Dale Mabry traffic signal synchronization, she said, "was a top priority on our list."

A FDOT official said the state has not moved money to TBX at the expense of other projects.

Rather, she said, whether a project is in the plan is often a question of procedure and timing.

A prime example is the synchronized signals for N Dale Mabry, said Debbie Hunt, director of transportation development for FDOT's district office in Tampa.

Because the Legislature moved up the schedule for producing the work plan by two months, FDOT didn't have time to complete its review on that request.

"It will be a priority next time," Hunt said. "We agree with the priority."

Likewise, FDOT agrees that walking and bike safety improvements make sense for Floribraska Avenue, Hunt said.

But she said the best time to do those is when the I-275 on- and off-ramps at Floribraska are closed as part of the TBX project, and that's not in the proposed five-year plan.

On the Green Spine, FDOT officials are concerned about whether enough right of way would be available, a key question when using federal funds. For now, they don't have enough information on that question, but are looking at the project further.

Funding for a MetroRapid study also is getting more scrutiny. Though the MPO proposed it for the federal funds at issue, Hunt said FDOT's analysis initially put it in another funding category.

In the bigger picture, she said, FDOT's plan would not short-change Hillsborough County.

While the county accounts for about 44 percent of the population in a three-county area that benefits from the federal funds in question, FDOT's plan would allocate about 59 percent of those monies in Hillsborough.

"We're happy to go over that, item by item, with the MPO," Hunt said.

That may happen.

The Policy Committee voted to recommend that the full MPO board, which meets on Nov. 10, outline its concerns in a letter to the FDOT.

•••

Meanwhile, opponents worry their efforts to stop TBX could be in vain.

FDOT is on record saying TBX will go forward when it gets the money to proceed.

That's one reason more than 400 opponents turned out on Aug. 4 for an MPO vote on whether to include the project on its priority list. The vote wasn't close, with only Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco voting no.

Still, before the vote Miller made a short speech saying FDOT had to "work with this community" to ease TBX's impact on urban neighborhoods. He also wants FDOT to make Florida Avenue and Tampa Street better for walking, cycling and transit.

Fail to do that, Miller warned, and he will make the motion to pull project funding when TBX comes back to the MPO.

But the nonprofit group Sunshine Citizens has doubts about the MPO's decision after obtaining emails sent the afternoon of the Aug. 4 meeting in which MPO and FDOT officials discussed some of the points Miller made that evening.

"Thank you for providing that language, which provides some good insights and background," MPO executive director Beth Alden wrote to the FDOT on the afternoon before the meeting. "The commissioner has built on it and provided the attached for your information."

Less than half an hour later, Hunt weighed in.

"Sorry, Beth," Hunt wrote, "the last condition won't work. I appreciate your efforts, though. Will address when motion made."

That last condition was Miller's demand for changes to Florida Avenue and Tampa Street, which he made anyway.

Still, opponents have felt the public has not gotten a vote on TBX and "saw this hearing as their only means to be heard," Sunshine Citizens' secretary Michelle Cookson said. But she said they walked into a meeting where the outcome had been sketched out in advance.

"To me, this demonstrates that they were actively circumnavigating the will of the public," she said.

That's not true, said Miller, who chairs the MPO.

"The motion that was made was mine," he said.

The point of the pre-meeting discussion, he said, was to make sure FDOT tried to address the concerns of residents who were expected to be very unhappy.

"I do understand the sentiments of the residents," Miller said. He remembers how the construction of I-4 through Ybor City took place with no public discussion or consideration of the African-American neighborhoods it uprooted. Nothing like that, he said, should happen again.

But he said the vote showed there was little sentiment among the elected officials on the MPO to remove TBX from the work plan.

So without someone pressing the FDOT to commit itself to a public engagement process, he said, the project might have moved forward without one.

As for her comment that Miller's last condition "won't work," Hunt said Florida Avenue and Tampa Street are outside the scope of the TBX project, and the changes he wants could have significant costs.

"Committing to a blank check is not something that I have the authority to do," she said.

Aug. 4 wasn't the first time that the MPO had considered the TBX plan. It already was part of a long-range transportation plan the MPO adopted last November after inviting public comment, including on the idea of adding tolled lanes to the interstate.

•••

Starting Monday, FDOT is holding six community meetings on ways to cushion the impact of TBX neighborhoods.

For example, overpasses could have ornamental brick and other design features like those used on I-4's new overpasses in Ybor City.

Public art, murals or decorative lighting could make the interstate's walls more attractive. Amenities like a dog park, athletic courts or other green spaces could be fit under the overpasses.

FDOT also is looking at whether some streets now separated by I-275 should be reconnected during TBX work.

But Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione said some of the projects FDOT has not included in the five-year plan would benefit neighborhoods where expanding the I-275 interchange would have a big impact.

"How is that serving the community?" said Montelione, who chairs the MPO's Policy Committee. "How is that working with the community to ameliorate the effects on the community of TBX?"

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Residents and commuters are complaining about heavy traffic ever since the Florida Department of Transportation closed both northbound lanes on Nebraska Avenue just south of Hillsborough Avenue (U.S. 92) in Tampa on Jan. 6, to install new drainage pipes under Nebraska Avenue between Giddens Avenue and Hillsborough Avenue. [Florida Department of Transportation]
    Dr. Delay explores the latest backups aggravating Seminole Heights residents and commuters.
  2. Brandi Dobbins, 28, talks with bus operator Paul Robinson while boarding the PSTA bus at Grand Central Station in St. Petersburg, Florida on Thursday, January 23, 2020.  [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    Elected officials see data as key to dealing with the problem, but systems for analyzing it are falling short.
  3. A look at the construction on the Tierra Verde bridge project which is the bridge between Isla Del Sol and Tierra Verde islands on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020 in St. Petersburg. The project began in December 2018 and is scheduled to be completed in summer of 2021. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Dr. Delay takes a deep dive into the construction process for the $56.3 million State Road 679 and Bayway Bridge project .
  4. The Toyota recall covers certain 2011-2019 Corollas, the 2011 to 2013 Matrix, the 2012 through 2018 Avalon and the 2013 to 2018 Avalon Hybrid in the U.S. Pictured is a 2013 Avalon Limited.
    The problem could affect as many as 12.3 million vehicles in the U.S. made by six companies.
  5. The area will be closed to drivers headed north and south from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. through Friday.
  6. A scooter rider navigates Platt Street on Friday morning during the calm before the storm — successive weekends of downtown Gasparilla parades. Scooter companies like Jump warn users it’s a violation of their rental agreement to operate one while under the influence. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    One company decided to pull its scooters Jan. 25 ‘out of an abundance of caution for riders and those participating in Gasparilla.’
  7. Delta Air Lines said Friday it will launch five new round-trip routes a day between Tampa and Miami starting May 4. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File) [MARK LENNIHAN  |  AP]
    Delta says the daily nonstop Miami service will create new connections for Tampa travelers to fly to Latin America and other international destinations.
  8. Tampa International Airport is building a new bike and pedestrian path that will loop around its under-construction SkyCenter office and hotel development and cell phone waiting lot. Eventually, that path is planned to connect to a network of regional biking and pedestrian trails. [Tampa International Airport]
    Tampa’s airport is the nation’s first to receive the designation from the nonprofit League of American Bicyclists. It was also the first to apply.
  9. In this photo from video, Delta Air Lines Flight 89 to Shanghai, China, dumps fuel over Los Angeles before returning to Los Angeles International Airport for an emergency landing Tuesday. Fuel dumped by the airliner making an emergency return Tuesday to the airport due to an engine problem fell onto three schools, causing minor irritation to 40 children and adults, officials said. (AP Photo/Matt Hartman) [MATT HARTMAN  |  AP]
    The fuel, described by fire officials as a vapor, caused minor skin and lung irritation to 56 children and adults but nobody was taken to the hospital.
  10. Draped against the St. Petersburg skyline on Tuesday evening on January 14, 2020, the Bella Vita is visible as it docks in Port St. Pete. The yacht is nearly 250 feet long and costs about $650,000 to charter for a week in the winter, according to broker Moran Yacht and Ship. It can accommodate 12 passengers between its six staterooms and six decks, and a staff of 22. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE  |  Times]
    Meet the Bella Vita, a yacht almost too luxurious to believe.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement