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Despite intense opposition, Hillsborough MPO votes to support ‘Tampa Bay Next’ project

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

For the third year in a row, the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization voted to maintain what is now known as the Tampa Bay Next (TBN) project, despite dozens of citizens who told them that they should remove the plan from the MPO’s Transportation Improvement Project (TIP).

Although the controversial Tampa Bay Express (TBX) is gone in name, critics who spoke before the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting Tuesday night said its DNA remains throughout its named successor, Tampa Bay Next.

“Is TBN just the repackaging of the old plan, or is it truly something new? ” asked Rick Fernandez, the president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association.”TBX deserves no prioritization over and above any other plan that this community might be able to contribute to the discussion. Not now and not until evaluations have been completed,” he added.

The TBX project, presented by the Florida Department of Transportation more than two years ago, was the biggest public works project in the history of the Tampa Bay region. The plan would ultimately remake I-275, I-4, and I-75, and bring new toll lanes from Pasco County south to Manatee County and from Pinellas County east to Polk County.

Critics contend the plan would negatively impact a low-income and minority area of Tampa, which had little input on what was happening in its neighborhood. They told the MPO to drop TBN from the MPO’s TIP.

“This will be economically disastrous, especially for the minority residents of these neighborhoods,” said Sara Kennedy, referring to the Tampa neighborhoods that could be impacted by the construction of the project: Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights and V.M. Ybor. “Residents face noise, air pollution and visual blight streaming from stretches of concrete bisecting their streets.”

“We told you that we would never relent, and we never have,” said Michelle Cookson, part of the anti-TBX activist group Sunshine Citizens. She questioned the meaning of the reset, saying that toll lanes are in the Tampa Bay Next project, as are the letters “TBX.”

Chris Vela also called for the TBN to removed from the TIP. He called on FDOT to stop buying and moving properties in Ybor City, all part of the what the agency has called “the ultimate downtown interchange”— the widening of both I-275 and I-4.

TBX and now TBN have been consistently supported by the business establishment in Hillsborough County, and no one is more establishment than Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. He said that while the Chamber does support the project, it also supports transit, autonomous vehicles, improved busing, walkable communities, and all other viable options.

Rohrlack also called on the MPO board to make sure to follow the money requested by Hillsborough County state lawmakers to pay for removing a Tampa Heights community center which sits in the middle of potential construction for TBN.

Anne Kulig, the president of the Westshore Alliance, said her group has also maintained steadfast support for the project, but like Rohrlack and Rick Homans, the president of the Tampa Bay Partnership, she also gave praise to FDOT for their evolution in dealing with the public and the neighborhood groups directly affected by TBN.

“We hope they’re sincere. We think they’re sincere, ” she said. “They really are looking at this as a multimodal opportunity.”

TBX/TBN foe Mit Patel said the project was a parade of horribles.

“How can one project be racist, be economic boondoggle, happen to not serve the future, happen to be based on studies from 30 years ago, how it can hurt our environment? How can it hurt our air quality? How can it be downright ugly? All this in one project.”

After more than four hours of discussion, the MPO board rejected a proposal by Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco to remove TBN from the TIP.

They then supported a proposal by County Commissioner Sandy Murman to request that the FDOT District 7 office provide quarterly updates to the MPO about TBN — specifically on mitigation efforts for the neighborhoods, community engagement, status for PD&E, options for premium transit and efforts to report on the human impacts on the projects.

Commissioner and MPO Chair Les Miller didn’t support the proposal, saying he had made similar motions over the past two MPO meetings on the TIP, and said that FDOT had utterly failed to provide adequate updates. Nevertheless, the rest of the board supported Murman’s proposal, and an FDOT official will presumably update them on TB Next at they next meeting in August.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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