1. Opinion

Editorial: DOT 'reset' can't be a stall

A fire sparked by an overheated lawn mower. An accident caused by a furniture dolly on the interstate. In a Tampa Bay area of 3 million people and no meaningful mass transit, such things in the past few days are the stuff capable of closing major bridges and arteries and shutting down a commute. It is a stuck-in-traffic certainty that our major metro area has a major transportation problem. So while it's good to hear the Florida Department of Transportation offering a brief but encouraging glimpse this week of what's involved in its so-called "reset" of the controversial Tampa Bay Express interstate plan, the time-out cannot become a stall tactic.

There are practical and political reasons for reassessing the need for toll lanes, the role of mass transit and the impacts the $6 billion highway plan will have on resurgent neighborhoods near Tampa's downtown core. But tens of thousands of commuters depend on the region's transportation network every single day, and any "reset" must bring a better plan and a stronger sense of urgency.

In a 10-minute presentation Thursday to the Tampa City Council, DOT development director Bill Jones said the state will examine all aspects of TBX, including the use of express toll lanes, and put a new plan to the community by the end of 2019. This was the first time the DOT offered any details behind the announcement by its then-secretary in December that the department would "reset" the plan amid withering criticism by transit advocates and some property owners who would be uprooted by a larger interstate footprint in Tampa.

Regrouping makes sense — if the exercise is truly aimed at building broader public support. As originally envisioned, TBX called for rebuilding the area's interstate system, building a new northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge and creating 90 miles of toll lanes across the west coast of Florida. The plan would have added much-needed capacity, opened up dangerous bottlenecks in downtown Tampa and the West Shore commercial district and created a window for improving mass transportation service across the region.

But the DOT did a terrible job in reaching out to the affected communities, and the changes with TBX it has sprung in recent months, along with a leadership void at the agency, all but means that this project will be punted to the next governor. That's no real loss, given Rick Scott's canceling of high-speed rail for the region and his near total lack of vision for mass transit. But it does keep TBX in a holding pattern, which creates a level of uncertainty for a project that's tremendously important to the region.

The DOT, partly in response to pressure from area lawmakers and the business community, has tweaked TBX in positive ways. It killed a plan to convert a free lane on the existing bridge into a toll lane, agreed to make a new bridge sturdy enough to support rail and added new safety and pedestrian improvements. But these changes came in reaction to pushback against the DOT, rather than being the product of a broad consensus of what was best for the community.

There's no time to wait to build support for TBX. The U.S. Census Bureau reported last month that the Tampa Bay area leads the way among the nation's biggest gainers in the number of people moving here. Some 58,000 new residents moved to the bay area last year. Yet four times in under two weeks, most recently Friday, the Howard Frankland Bridge, Gandy Boulevard or the bridge approaches were partially or fully shut down because of accidents, a brush fire and a fuel spill. Never mind the routine daily crawl born of regular congestion.

This is why Tampa Bay must move forward now on TBX and separately — but also important — get behind pending legislation (SB 1672) to transform the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority into an agency to "plan, implement and operate'' transit options throughout the region. For TBX, this "reset" period must produce a strategy for moving forward. On Tampa Bay's roads as well as its future, there is no longer any practical way of finding alternative routes.