1. Opinion

Column: Improving I-275 is important to Tampa Bay's economy

Cars start to pack I-275 South just past downtown Tampa.
Cars start to pack I-275 South just past downtown Tampa.
Published Jun. 7, 2019

Special to the Tampa Bay Times

Ninety-four percent of Hillsborough County residents view the section of I-275 north of downtown Tampa as a critical connection to jobs and opportunities, according to a recent scientific poll conducted by Florida Opinion Research and commissioned by the Tampa Bay Partnership.

That near-universal sentiment is just one reason why the partnership, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, North Tampa Bay Chamber and other civic groups are urging the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization to approve the Florida Department of Transportation's $300 million plan to improve this portion of the interstate at its meeting on Tuesday.

The plan proposed by the state would improve access to and from Interstate 4, create lane continuity from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Bearss Avenue, widen shoulders for transit and emergency use and add sound barriers to benefit adjacent neighborhoods. It also calls for enhancements for cyclists and pedestrians at 13 underpasses.

In response to concerns expressed by some neighborhood residents, the Department of Transportation eliminated earlier plans for managed lanes on this segment of the interstate and will focus on incremental enhancements within the existing right-of-way that improve safety and traffic operations. Yet opponents of this project have made it clear they won't be satisfied until I-275 north of downtown Tampa is torn down, any investment in our interstate system has ended and our transit system is fully funded.

This is no time for ideological extremism.

With more than 500,000 new residents expected to arrive in Tampa Bay by 2030, these basic improvements are the minimum we should be doing to maintain a roadway that is at capacity today and likely to become increasingly more congested as our population continues to grow.

We believe most Hillsborough County residents want a balanced approach to solving our transportation challenges that includes investments in both transit and highways. The partnership contributed $250,000 to support the 2018 Hillsborough transit referendum, and many of our leaders gave above and beyond that amount. But we also understand that if we're going to solve our transportation challenges, we need every option on the table.

We've spent the better part of the past three years working to improve regional transportation in Tampa Bay. Why? Because we believe that many of the economic challenges faced by our region — including our low wages, low household income and low affordability — are tied directly to a woefully inadequate transportation system.

If people don't have access to jobs, they don't have access to opportunity. North of downtown Tampa, I-275 is an important conduit to those opportunities within Hillsborough County and throughout the entire Tampa Bay region. The leaders of the Hillsborough MPO should take reasonable and thoughtful action that respects the needs and interests of the community. They should allow the Department of Transportation to dedicate resources to I-275's improvement.

Rick Homans is president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership.