The Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization approved the Florida Dept. of Transportation’s controversial Tampa Bay Express project on Thursday morning, adding it to its annual Transportation Improvement Plan for the next five years, despite intense passionate opposition.
The final vote was 12-4, with Les Miller, Lisa Montelione, Kevin Beckner and Guido Maniscalco dissenting. It came after eight hours of public hearings and discussion, with the meeting concluded at 2:18 a.m. Thursday morning. More than 180 people signed up to speak, though not all of them did.
“The people who are going to be affected by this most, don’t want this,” said MPO Chairman Les Miller, who had declared last August that he would vote against the plan if FDOT did not do an exemplary job of outreach to the community. He proposed a motion to remove sections 6,7 and 8 of the plan (there are eight sections to the plan). It failed on a 11-5 vote.
Accountability measures were added, however, as FDOT was pounded during the public hearing as not providing the community outreach that they promised last summer. A motion by Commissioner Sandy Murman would create a structure of communication between the MPO and FDOT, where the state agency would regularly update the board on TBX on a quarterly basis. They would also agree to present a reevaluation study as part of a public hearing to provide an update on community engagement.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner then added a separate motion. It called for FDOT to present a study on a human impact report; a neighborhood mitigation plan as it relates to the residents and businesses who will be re located; environmental studies; a reevaluation study of the I-275 and I-4 interchange; a traffic revenue study, and a review of the the civil rights investigation into the TBX being conduct.”This conversation isn’t over. This conversation is just getting started,” said Tampa City Councilman Harry Cohen.
The TBX is the biggest public works project in the history of the Tampa Bay area, and the vote on a momentum feel at the County Center in Tampa, where hundreds filled two floors of the county center to discuss the $6 billion project, which 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. Unlike the MPO vote last August or other MPO meetings over the past year, pro-TBX voices came out in strong numbers to try to match the opposition.
“Good morning, Mr. Chairman, you’re looking good,” joked Rick Homans with the Tampa Bay Partnership, who addressed the board at 12:15 a.m. Thursday morning. Homans has led the pro-TBX coalition of corporate support, called TBX Yes. “A ‘no’ vote will send the wrong signal,” he told the MPO board, a common refrain heard from pro-TBX supporters.
“FDOT has failed to prove an array of its claims,”said Rick Fernandez, President of the Tampa Heights Civic Association, the first speaker of the evening, citing specifically that it will relieve traffic congestion.
USF Professor Doug Jesseph warned the lawmakers on the MPO that they were putting their political futures in doubt if they supported the TBX. “If you have political ambitions, you should take note,” he said. “Support TBX and literally hundreds of people will work tirelessly for your electoral downfall.”
“TBX is all spending, and no return on investment,” complained Michelle Cookson from Sunshine Citizens, the activist group formed in opposition to the project. “The entire premise is flawed.” Cookson said that FDOT should spend the billions earmarked for the project for transit, suggesting that they purchase the CSX train track lines for rail, which she said would cost $20 million a mile, vs. the $120 million a mile that TBX would cost.
“Tonight is not the time to bow to political pressure,” cautioned Apollo Beach resident Ken Roberts, who said that while the freeway system has worked well for the Tampa Bay area, “TBX is the upgrade.” As opposed to some the critics, Roberts said that the toll lanes added in Miami have worked well for that community.
Tampa resident Taylor Ralph had a different perspective from both – he said he was from the “TBX maybe” coalition, saying that there were some positive parts of the plan, but not the toll lanes aspect. “If we continue to double down on our roads agenda, and say that’s the only way to fix congestion, then we’re stuck, because we’re going to pave over our entire city,” he said, urging the MPO to work with the DOT on improving the plan.
Several critics said the plan would negatively impact a low-income and minority concentrated area of Tampa, who had little input on what was happening in their neighborhood. The Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this month that 80 percent of the registered voters living at properties that Florida’s Department of Transportation plans to demolish are black and Latino.
“Let’s stop the additional pollution,” said Tampa Bay Sierra Club conservation chair Paul Thibault, “let’s stop the added traffic noise. Let’s stop the destruction of viable and vibrant communities. Let’s stop believing that more roads will reduce traffic. Let’s stop thinking that it was like yesterday, and plan for a better, safer and livable space. And let’s avoid history judging this as a deeply flawed idea, with your names attached.”
Adding more pressure on MPO members was the comment made by DOT District Secretary Paul Steinman in April. He said that his agency would take the hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for toll lane construction and divert them to other metropolitan areas willing to go all in for major highway upgrades if it was rejected by the MPO.
That argument was rejected by TBX critic Mit Patel, who called it a “stupid argument,” and said that the state couldn’t take such money needed for this region and spend it elsewhere. He called the toll-lane fees a regressive tax that would hurt the local economy.
But plenty of TBX supporters referenced that threat, and said a rejection by the MPO would leave Tampa behind in terms of its economic competitiveness.
Tea Party activist Sharon Calvert said she supported express toll lanes, calling it a user fee that is fair to everyone, saying “it enables and empowers individuals to make their own choices.”
Tampa resident Gary Gibbons, the nephew of the late Congressman Sam Gibbons, said if he were watching the vote, he would say, “what the hell are you doing?” and called the TBX a “reverse Robin Hood project, taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich.”
But unlike the two recent votes by the Hillsborough County Commission on the Go Hillsborough tax, there was little suspense in the room, with the MPO signaling a year ago that they were in support of the project. The only question at the end would be how many members would vote no.