TAMPA — The Florida Department of Transportation is taking two years to re-evaluate its controversial Tampa Bay Express plan to add express toll lanes to nearly 100 miles of bay-area interstates.
DOT director of development Bill Jones made a 10-minute presentation to the Tampa City Council on Thursday explaining exactly what the TBX "reset" means. He told the council that the state will have a new plan for the project ready by the end of 2019.
"Over the next two years, 30 months, express lanes are going to be re-evaluated," Jones said. "We're also going to look at other options as well."
That doesn't mean managed toll lanes — where toll prices would fluctuate by demand — won't one day take shape along the bay area's currently free interstates.
But it does mean that the $6 billion project will have to be reapproved at the federal, state and local level once again, and that could mean modifications, such as adding more transit options, before the plan can move forward in 2019.
Former DOT Secretary Jim Boxold called for the reset at the end of 2016 after public outcry against the project, which would have bulldozed minority-dominated neighborhoods around the Interstate 275/Interstate 4 interchange in downtown Tampa and converted an existing free lane on the Howard Frankland Bridge to a paid toll lane.
Residents, especially those in Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights, were outraged over the proposed expansion that would have cut through their neighborhoods to add toll lanes that could cost up to $2 for a single mile in rush hour.
Many of those same people also wouldn't have had access to the speedy express lanes, which skip over the majority of central Tampa and the 20,000 people who live there.
The reset, Jones said, will focus on three steps: research, evaluate, respond. As part of the first step, the DOT took about three dozen people — including politicians, residents and business people — to St. Louis earlier this week to learn how the Missouri Department of Transportation worked with the community to come to a consensus on a controversial highway project there.
Similar to TBX, which originated from a 20-year-old study, Missouri was working with an old plan that faced significant backlash. Officials there quickly realized they needed to regroup and work closer with the community to make the project a success, Jones said.
Florida officials want to take the same approach, Jones said, which means putting all options — including tolls — back on the table.
"We're here to listen to transportation as a whole," Jones said. "Some communities might not want to talk about transit or TBX, others specifically might want to dive right into it."
City Council members Frank Reddick and Mike Suarez asked pointed questions about those who attended the St. Louis meetings and how they were selected. The group included 10 community members — six from Hillsborough, three from Pinellas and one from Pasco — whose trip was paid for by the Federal Highway Administration. Several of them were vocal opponents of the project, including Chris Vela, Rick Fernandez and Kimberly Overman, all Tampa residents who are part of Sunshine Citizens or Stop TBX.
"They need to be monitored and they need to be held accountable," Reddick said of the group that went to St. Louis. "You find a way to pay these people off and make them happy and then they'll be supportive of what you want done. I don't want to see that happen."
Diane Hart of the East Tampa Business and Civic Association was also on the trip. The big takeaway, she said, was that in order for any of these big infrastructure projects to work, Florida transportation officials have to listen to the Tampa Bay community.
"I'm thinking, moving forward, they really see without the community's input and without the trust of the community it will never be able to take place," Hart said at Thursday's meeting. "There will be constant controversy around this forever."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.