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To restart Tampa Bay Express, officials head to St. Louis to learn the art of compromise

Rick Fernandez, 61 of Tampa Heights, wears a mask while holding a sign last year to protest the Tampa Bay Express.
Rick Fernandez, 61 of Tampa Heights, wears a mask while holding a sign last year to protest the Tampa Bay Express.
Published Apr. 8, 2017

TAMPA — The Florida Department of Transportation is hoping a trip to St. Louis can help revive its controversial plan to add toll lanes to nearly 100 miles of Tampa Bay interstates.

The local DOT office will take a group of about 20 politicians, activists and business members to Missouri in April to learn more about how transportation planners and community members there came together and compromised on a highway construction project.

The rebuilding of Interstate 64 through St. Louis did not include adding toll lanes, but it did face significant opposition from the community — like the Tampa Bay Express project has faced here.

"It started off probably not as well within the community as they would have liked, either," Tampa Bay DOT secretary Paul Steinman said during a planning meeting last week for the trip. "They found ways to work with the community . . . and to complement the neighborhoods surrounding those projects."

A $12,500 federal grant will cover the cost of 10 citizens — including those who oppose TBX — to attend the two-day peer exchange April 11-12. Bay area politicians and business leaders, along with DOT, are paying their own way. State officials expect the trip to cost the agency just under $5,000 for its five representatives, including the local project lead, Bill Jones.

This trip is the main thrust of the "reset" of TBX that state leaders called for last December following more than a year of public outcry against the project that would have added managed toll lanes that could cost commuters up to $2 a mile. Building the new lanes would also have required bulldozing homes in minority neighborhoods around downtown Tampa.

The state also scrapped its plan to rebuild the Howard Frankland Bridge in 2019 after the Tampa Bay Times reported that DOT proposed adding a toll lane but taking away a free lane, a tradeoff that surprised many local politicians.

"We've taken a step back as a department," Steinman said. "We want to make sure we can move forward in such a way that we truly engage not only the folks in the downtown area but also in a regional manner."

Other parts of the reset include redoing the environmental impact study for TBX and also paying for transit studies that will evaluate the downtown Tampa streetcar line and other options such as rail lines and express buses.

The schedule in St. Louis will include a tour of the I-64 project and surrounding neighborhoods, and discussions with local transportation planners and community members.

"It's less about the actual projects that Missouri put together," Steinman said. "It's really about how they worked with their communities."

However, some people said the success of the trip depends on how open the discussion is and whether there is time to talk with actual citizens, not just public officials.

"When I say real people, I mean people from the community who were directly impacted by the project," said Dianne Hart of the East Tampa Business and Civic Association. "I think having those people in the room is really very important."

As of March 29, only one member of the St. Louis community involved in the I-64 effort was scheduled to take part. But Hart said she and others will make it a point to talk with locals, even if it is outside of the structured meetings.

"Even if they don't have anyone in the meeting, we'll get out there in the neighborhoods and have those discussions," Hart said. "We need to have a better understanding of what the community really went through."

Hart and Chloe Coney, who have both worked within the East Tampa community for decades, were also part of similar peer exchanges nationwide when the city was creating community redevelopment areas to raise money for road and other infrastructure improvements.

"It opens a whole mindset, a whole vision, when you can see another city be successful with the same problem," Chloe said. "They can tell you about the partnership and how they worked together, and also the challenges they had to overcome. That's critical."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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