Editorial: Despite drawbacks, TBX interstate project worth pursuing

Hillsborough County officials should move ahead with TBX in a key vote this week and avoid sending the wrong message to Tallahassee that Tampa Bay remains stuck in neutral about solving its biggest challenge.
Hillsborough County officials should move ahead with TBX in a key vote this week and avoid sending the wrong message to Tallahassee that Tampa Bay remains stuck in neutral about solving its biggest challenge.
Published Jun. 17, 2016

Tampa Bay Express, the state's ambitious plan for widening the region's highways, is a critical piece in the overall effort to improve the area's overwhelmed transportation system. Hillsborough County officials should move ahead with TBX in a key vote this week and avoid sending the wrong message to Tallahassee that Tampa Bay remains stuck in neutral on solving its biggest challenge. Keeping the project in play also will provide more time for local and state officials to address a host of practical concerns, from the use of toll lanes and the lack of mass transit to the impact a wider highway will have on Tampa's inner-city neighborhoods.

The $6 billion highway plan includes several major pieces, from a new northbound span for the Howard Frankland Bridge to new interchanges and interstate connections between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Once completed, the project would remake I-275, I-4 and I-75, and bring about 90 miles of new toll lanes from Pasco County south to Manatee and from Pinellas east to Polk. The interstate widening would add much-needed capacity, while the new interchanges would help open up dangerous bottlenecks around downtown Tampa, Tampa's West Shore business hub and Tampa International Airport. TBX is a key investment in the regional economy that will improve mobility for millions of people across Tampa Bay.

The project faces a critical test Wednesday as the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, a transportation policy board that sets priorities for the county and its three cities, will decide whether to keep TBX on its project list. If the board approves, construction can start next year. If the MPO removes TBX from its list, the state has said it would spread the money to other cities in Florida. A rejection would be terribly shortsighted, discourage businesses from relocating to this market and cloud the region's long-term future.

The MPO should keep TBX as a priority and work with the state to make the plan fairer to commuters, more accommodating for future mass transit, and less harmful to residents and businesses in the highway's path. While express lanes with variable tolls are becoming more common in large urban areas nationwide, they aren't necessarily right for Tampa Bay. There are practical design issues that have yet to be resolved in Miami-Dade County and elsewhere. The tolls at peak times would be unaffordable for many commuters, and the argument that those in the free lanes still would benefit is not compelling.

Make no mistake: The requirement to build and maintain new highway lanes with tolls under Gov. Rick Scott is about saving the state money, not economic fairness or efficiently moving traffic. While Hillsborough should act in good faith this week and move forward with TBX, the use and implementation of express toll lanes should continue to be vigorously reviewed.

The mass transit component in TBX rings more of promises than actual solutions. Though express buses would be allowed to use the tolled lanes for free, Hills­borough has only skeletal express bus service. The County Commission rejected a plan this month to put a sales tax on the November ballot that would have expanded the bus system. The transit corridor for TBX also runs only east-west, rather than continuing north along I-275 to serve the growing University of South Florida area. If TBX is to be truly multimodal, it needs to include concrete options and a funding base for getting people out of their cars. That is both a state and local responsibility.

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The state Department of Transportation also needs to be more sensitive to the affected neighborhoods and individual homeowners. As the Tampa Bay Times' Caitlin Johnston and Anthony Cormier reported, hundreds of residents — most of them minorities — will be displaced by the construction. But the DOT is keeping the public in the dark; the agency refused to provide the Times with a list of people it has contacted about the highway expansion. Residents in the target area near downtown Tampa say no one from the state has informed them whether they would need to move. The DOT says it's too early to determine whose land it will need.

That isn't good enough. While it is understandable that the precise map could change with a final road design, all property owners potentially affected should be kept in the loop. These parcels may be numbers on a map to the state, but to hundreds of people they are the homes, businesses and institutions that have shaped their lives for decades. And it's not merely a matter of niceties or aesthetics. Many residents walk or bicycle where they need to go in these neighborhoods. How the state develops TBX — from the deck overhead to the sidewalks and streets — will affect their safety, property values and quality of life.

The federal, state and local governments have spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years rebuilding Tampa's urban core in the shadow of the interstate. The new parks, lighting, streetscapes and historic renovations have helped to bring new residents to the area and attract millions of additional dollars in private sector investments. With new restaurants, shops, bars and housing sprouting up in Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods, the state needs to be sensitive to the renewal taking place. Local officials, meanwhile, need to protect a turnaround long in the making that is reshaping the city's economics for the better.

But none of these long-term interests — from evaluating toll lanes to enhancing transit options to shoring up neighborhoods — would be served by killing TBX now. By moving ahead, the MPO would open a window for the state, local governments and area residents to work together on improving the highways while addressing the concerns and needs of those who live and work under them. For all its criticism as a road project, TBX at least creates a mass transit corridor along the interstate. As part of TBX, the state agreed to harden the new Howard Frankland span at least below the water line to support a rail line between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. And TBX adds pressure at the local level for new investments in bus and other mass transit service.

This decision should not boil down to an ideological debate between widening roads and adding mass transit. The fact is, this region needs to do both. A robust regional mass transit system remains elusive, with Hillsborough commissioners prudently killing an inadequate proposal even if for the wrong, antitax reasons. By moving forward on TBX, Hillsborough would send a message to the state that it is not giving in to perpetual gridlock. The focus on transportation that the yearslong project would bring could revive a serious push for mass transit and signal that Tampa Bay is prepared to confront its top regional problem. The MPO should vote in support of TBX at its meeting Wednesday.