Florida's transportation chief offered some encouraging words this week for the controversial Tampa Bay Express project, the state's plan to remake the area's interstate system. Jim Boxold, the secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, told a Senate panel he wants to "hit the reset button" on TBX, which has drawn fierce local opposition for its reliance on roads and tolls, and for the impact it would have on neighborhoods near downtown Tampa. Boxold's comments are welcome and the latest sign that the DOT wants a fresh start and a more collaborative approach on a project critical to the region.
Boxold made his comments in response to a query by Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, whose district extends into downtown Tampa. Noting with understatement that the rollout of TBX has been "bumpy," Rouson asked for an update, a clear sign he is looking for changes in DOT's handling of the controversial project.
To his credit, Boxold directly acknowledged that relations with local residents and leaders need to be improved. While maintaining that TBX is necessary to improve the region's transportation system, Boxold didn't flinch from admitting that the state needs to focus more on the impact on nearby low-income and minority neighborhoods. He conceded that DOT has done a poor job of involving residents in the decisionmaking process, and he promised a new spirit of openness moving forward.
"We have the benefit of some time before we're ready to move forward with that project," he said, describing a period of up to three years to address the deficiencies in TBX. Boxold said the DOT will assign new staff to the project and work more intensely with the local communities. "It's important to take the time to get it right," he told Rouson, "and I look forward to working with you and other leaders in Tampa to do that." Rouson advised DOT to show the affected residents more respect. Boxold responded: "I couldn't agree more."
This welcome exchange is a far cry from the tone DOT has shown in rolling out TBX, a $6 billion plan to remake the area's interstate systems, build a new northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge and create 90 miles of toll lanes across the west coast of Florida. TBX would add much-needed capacity on the roadways, open up dangerous bottlenecks in downtown Tampa and West Shore and lead the way for improving mass transit and other commuting options across the region.
The DOT was right to reverse course in October in the wake of intense local pressure and kill plans to transform a free lane on the existing Howard Frankland into a toll lane on the new span. Last month, a top DOT official overseeing the TBX project abruptly resigned. Now Boxold's comments mark another major departure in approach for an agency that up to now had been largely indifferent to local concerns. Residents and critics in Tampa are right that the DOT needs to explore more design options for reducing TBX's planned footprint in downtown Tampa. And residents need to be involved in the decisionmaking process, not merely be informed of it.
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Rouson was smart to press Boxold on an issue important to his district, the region and the state. And the DOT secretary showed good faith and an astute ear with his thoughtful remarks. Residents and bay area leaders need to hold the agency to this collaborative spirit. Local leaders also need to show the state they are prepared to fund new mass transit options. But the promise of hitting the "reset" button is a step forward for all.