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New report blasts TBX project as a “boondoggle”

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

(Updated with FDOT response below)

The Florida Department of Transportation’s Tampa Bay Express project has been controversial since it was introduced last year.

The first phase of “TBX” would add tolled express lanes to I-275 in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, as well as to I-4 and I-275, at a cost of an estimated $3.3 billion,

It’s been met with immediate and unified opposition by the local neighborhoods which will be impacted by the expansion of the downtown interchange portion of I-275, with citizens from Tampa Heights, V.M. Ybor and Seminole Heights in particular expressing their outrage at local government meetings.

And that opposition isn’t going away. In fact, local activists say it’s only beginning, as they announced there will be a march and rally around the areas affected by the TBX project on Saturday, February 6 at 11 a.m. near Cafe Hey (1540 N Franklin Ave., Tampa).

“I believe the TBX is a very poor expenditure of public funds,” said former Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena said on Tuesday at a press conference. “It will do destructive things to our neighborhoods where it’s impacted by.”

Saul-Sena said that during her tenure at the council and as a city planner she has previously served on the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Organization for 24 years. That’s the same agency that voted 13-1 to approve the project in its five-year transportation plan last August, seemingly ending any debate about the project’s going forward, despite the hundreds at the county center on that August night who appeared in opposition.

“I hope to help some of my former colleagues and other elected officials to understand that they have other choices,” Saul-Sena said.

Her former colleagues at the Tampa City Council actually weighed in last summer showing their solidarity with the activists, who call themselves Sunshine Citizens. The Council has no the authority to stop the project, however.

The press conference was held at the Tampa Heights Community Center, the site of a formerly dilapidated church that the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association raised and spent more than $1 million to convert into a community center. Improvements in the building were stopped last November by a cease and desist order from the FDOT, who rejected a request by the group to allowed to continue improving the building. The building is owned by the city on an FDOT easement.

Activists claim the DOT’s proposal is similar to other large highway projects currently being planned around the country, and say such projects don’t make any economic sense.

To buttress their argument, Bill Newton from the Florida Consumers Action Network unveiled a brand new report called, “Highway Boondoggles 2:More Money and America’s Transportation Future, published by the Frontier Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, two advocacy groups who oppose such large scale projects.

The study lists the TBX as one of 12 highway projects that will cost at least $24 billion, and says the projects are “wrongly prioritizing expansion over repair of existing infrastructure and are based on poor projections of future needs.”

The report describes how plans to expand the stretch of I-275 in the downtown area was approved by the Federal Highway Administration, yet the project was never built. What the area around Ybor City has seen since then is a number of houses be removed from neighborhoods, something that activist Chris Vela says has brought lower tax values and increased crime to the area.

Despite the activists protests, nothing that has happened so far indicates that FDOT has any second thoughts about building the TBX.

Sunshine Citizens member Mit Patel says that despite the fact that the group hasn’t seem their demands met, he knows they’ve already made an impact regarding transportation in the Tampa Bay area.

“I think we’ve made a huge impact in the eyes of officials,” he said.

At a meeting of the Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area Leadership Group last fall, CSX Corporation announced for the first time that it was willing to sell two of their freight lines, giving local officials a jolt of excitement that the development could lead to a new commuter rail transit line. And similarly, FDOT has announced that working with HART, they are willing to fund up to a million dollar study on looking at “premium transit” in the area, such as rail.

Those developments, Patel said, we’re doubtful previously if it weren’t for the agitation of the neighborhood groups.

“The more we keep the conversation alive in the media, the better we can get at actually solving the problem,” he said. “Will TBX still happen? We don’t know yet.”

FDOT has been holding community meetings to allow the public to address their concerns, with the next one scheduled for Tuesday night at the John Germany Public Library in Tampa at 5:30 p.m.

(Update) Later on Tuesday, Kris Carson with the Florida Dept. of Transportation responded to today’s press conference. Here are her comments in full:

“For many years FDOT has been working with various communities along I-275 about the future of the Tampa Bay interstate system and future express lanes, including the ultimate downtown interchange project (I-275 and I-4).  There is a very delicate balance between impacts to established communities and relieving the congestion faced by the 180,000 vehicles a day that travel I-275 as residents, visitors, commuters, truckers, and more move through this region.

 

The not-so affectionately called Malfunction Junction, the I-4/I-275 (Downtown Interchange), needs to be completely rebuilt to relieve local and regional congestion and to accommodate transit. Express lanes are an integral part of the system and will help reduce traffic congestion for everyone.  Congestion will be reduced not only on the Interstate but equally importantly, on the parallel local roads.  We are committed to working with the community to ensure we understand their concerns and what they want their communities to look like.

FDOT has always stated this region needs a viable transit system and jointly with HART we are doing a study to determine what premium transit looks like in the Tampa Bay area.  The discussion has to include the local governments about how the operating and maintenance of the system will be funded.  Premium transit could be:  Bus Rapid Transit in transit dedicated lanes; light rail like Pinellas County has determined to be the choice mode; commuter rail like SUNRail in Orlando; or any of the options included in the attached document.  FDOT believes transit is important to this region and just last month purchased a second site for an intermodal terminal.  FDOT now owns a site in Downtown Tampa and a site in the Westshore Business District.  The pieces of the transportation infrastructure puzzle are falling into place.”

 

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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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