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?"