Tampa council again opposes Tampa Bay Express interstate expansion

The plan includes an I-275/I-4 interchange redo.
The plan includes an I-275/I-4 interchange redo.
Published June 10, 2016

TAMPA — For the second time in a year, the City Council on Thursday sided with neighborhood activists, voting 5 to 1 to urge that the planned Tampa Bay Express interstate expansion be taken off a local priority list of transportation projects.

Several council members said the $1.2 billion reconstruction of the downtown interchange would set back urban neighborhoods that have only in recent years started to recover after decades of blight caused by the original construction of Interstate 275.

Frank Reddick said he would do everything in his power to stop a project that would most affect Tampa Heights and other neighborhoods with large black and Hispanic populations.

"It's a disservice to the people in these communities," he said. "It's time for this foolishness to come to an end."

That said, the council's vote does not have a direct bearing on the list, which heads to a key vote on June 22 at the multi-agency Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Instead, it's a statement of the council's position as Tampa's Community Redevelopment Agency, which works on community-building in some of the neighborhoods that would be most affected by the planned reconstruction of the I-275/I-4 interchange.

Moreover, council member Lisa Montelione cautioned that a vote for the resolution on Thursday does not mean that the council's three representatives to the MPO will vote the same way there.

"We're not all of us saying we're going to vote 'no' at the MPO. … Things may change between now and the 22nd. You never know," said Montelione, who supported the council's resolution. The other two council members on the MPO are Guido Maniscalco, who has opposed Tampa Bay Express in the past, and Harry Cohen, who Thursday voted against his council colleagues.

Cohen and Mike Suarez said Tampa Bay Express, often called TBX, requires balancing large-scale transportation needs with quality-of-life issues.

"We know that Malfunction Junction needs to be fixed," Suarez said. "We need to revisit what this plan is and the design of it to make it more accommodating to what the neighborhoods and the city itself have been doing to make our city a much more livable place."

Debbie Hunt, the Florida Department of Transportation's local director of transportation development, said the agency has held a series of community meetings to try to determine what accommodations it could put in place. They include:

• Spending $10 million to buy 30 buses so the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority could provide additional bus service on five corridors, thus helping people move around TBX construction while it's under way.

• Redesigning a pond planned near Central Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard so that some water would be stored under the elevated highway instead. With a smaller pond, five houses along Central Avenue could be saved.

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• Redesigning overpasses to make space below for bicycle trails and sidewalks, bus stops, streetlights and landscaping.

• Building a pass-through below part of the interstate so residents could walk between Robles Park on one side of the highway and a planned retention pond and Borrell Park on the other.

• Providing space for one or more community gardens to replace one that will be lost to construction at a Tampa Heights volunteer-built community center.

FDOT officials said TBX would help prepare the region for growth that's expected to bring 600,000 new residents to Hillsborough by 2040, but opponents said it's an ineffective and car-centric approach that would turn Tampa Heights, Ybor City and downtown into a "moonscape."

"TBX will not solve congestion," Tampa Heights Civic Association president Rick Fernandez said. "In most universes that should be enough to kill it."

On Monday, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller said he would vote against TBX when it comes back to the MPO. Miller chairs the MPO and said last year he would work to remove the project from the agency's five-year list of priorities if FDOT did not re-evaluate a 20-year-old study on which the project is based. That didn't happen, he said.

"I agree with the people that don't want this and they don't think they should have this in the neighborhood without a complete study done," Miller told the Tampa Bay Times. "People just feel like it's going to destroy their neighborhood. Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights."

Until Miller's announcement, the only other official on the 16-member MPO board who had come out against TBX was Maniscalco.

Contact Richard Danielson at (813) 226-3403 or Follow @Danielson_Times