One of the most controversial elements of the Florida Department of Transportation’s now aborted $6 billion Tampa Bay Express (TBX) project was that it would have put toll lanes on parts of I-275 between downtown Tampa and Pinellas County.
TBX is now history, though elements of it remain alive. But FDOT officials insist they have an open mind about what they will do now that they have evolved the project into Tampa Bay Next, which is “looking at everything in our system,” says FDOT’s Ed McKinney.
“It’s everything in our system,” McKinney told members of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization on Tuesday. “We need to be willing as a board, as a county, as local officials, to say maybe there’s a solution here that we need to bring into this conversation, and we need to take some ownership of that.”
FDOT officials announced in December that they would be “rebooting” the project, and McKinney says that includes everything in the downtown interchange to the Westshore interchange; the Howard Frankland Bridge; the I-275 segment north of the downtown interchange; and I-4 east of the Selmon Expressway.
That reboot plans include the potential of dropping the toll lanes on I-275 and moving them to I-75.
“What if we move express lanes off of the I-275 corridor? What if we don’t use that as our express lane corridor, and I-75 becomes our express lane corridor?” he asked. “We’re going to look at that option, and how does that change the traffic flow.”
Such a change would be a major victory for Tampa residents in the neighborhoods who have opposed the project from day one.
McKinney emphasized that it’s still extremely early in the process and that there is a lot of community engagement still left to happen.
Among those solutions that neighborhood activists are rallying around is a presentation from Joshua Frank, the urban planner who suggests razing an 11-mile portion of I-275 from where it begins in northern Hillsborough County to the I-4 exchange.
Called “Bifurcation to Boulevard,” it was his 17-minute version of the presentation he’s been offering around the area for several months now. It would recreate that portion of the interstate into a wide, landscaped boulevard featuring bike and pedestrian paths with room for a commuter rail system, a la an enhanced streetcar system.
Although supporters of TBX said it was needed to bring commuters from Pasco County into downtown Tampa, Frank says that only 35 percent of those who drive on I-275 come from Pasco, with the other 65 percent traveling from the USF area at Fletcher Avenue to the Floribraska exit around Columbus Drive.
Frank says the idea isn’t unprecedented, citing similar teardown of interstate highways in places like Milwaukee and San Francisco, which decided to remove the Embarcadero Freeway shortly after it was severely damaged from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
He says the economic development portion of the plan is “beyond anything we could ever see from highway expansion.”
“This is absolutely fascinating,” gushed an enthusiastic Guido Maniscalco, the Tampa City Council member who sits on the MPO’s board.
“I think we’ve reached a point of desperation. We haven’t done anything meaningful,” Maniscalco said about the lack of any movements in a public transit system since the 2010 Moving Hillsborough Forward sales tax referendum failed at the polls in Hillsborough in 2010.
Meanwhile, FDOT will continue to reach out to the community to ultimately find a plan, or perhaps, McKinney said, they’ll decide not to change anything.