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Tampa Bay Next begins rocky road to consensus

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

A reinvention of the transportation project formerly known as TBX began Wednesday night.

A crowd of approximately 150 people from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties gathered at the Bryan Glazer Jewish Community Center in West Tampa for the grand opening of Tampa Bay Next, the new name for what continues to essentially be the same project — the Tampa Bay Express, the $6 billion plan from the Florida Department of Transportation whose most contentious feature included 90 miles of toll lanes to existing free interstate highways.

But that’s not what Wednesday night was all about.

“Tonight is more about listening,” said Andrea Henning with Collaborative Labs, an organization affiliated with St. Petersburg College that works on executing strategic planning sessions and solving problems.

The audience was then separated into 20 separate small groups tasked with determining the common needs and problems in a transportation system. In many ways, it was similar to the outreach meetings that the sponsors of the ill-fated Go Hillsborough transit plan conducted back in 2015.

“What does success look like for our region?” Henning asked. “How do we get there?”

For all the discussion of this “reboot” as a way of starting over in coming up with a transportation plan the community can buy into, express toll lanes remain an option the FDOT is considering, but not necessarily in areas where Tampa transit activists are most concerned.

That would be the downtown interchange area just north of downtown Tampa on I-275, as well as the Westshore interchange.

“That’s all under re-evaluation,” says Danielle Moran, program consultant for FDOT on the Tampa Bay Next project. “FDOT is doing exactly what everybody asked them to do last year. They have slowed down the pace of the project to wait for the results of the Transit Feasibility plan.”

Also known as the “premium transit plan,” that study recently came up with five transit routes that are being considered a “starting point.” It will continue deep into 2018.

In an effort to be inclusive, officials from various local transit agencies were invited to the meeting, because FDOT officials say that if they’re going to build a transportation system that accommodates regional mobility, then local concerns also need to be addressed.

Some members of the public thought they would hear about specific plans, but Henning and Moran shut down that talk early on.

“This is a response for a broader conversation,” Moran said. “If you have specific questions about concepts and other options, we can set up a time to get together.”

Among the major themes emanating from the study groups last night were to put all forms of transportation on the table; to work on reducing bottlenecks around I-4; putting infrastructure in place before specific communities grow and not afterward; to have responsible land use; think about urban freeway removal, and yes, a proposal to eliminate toll roads.

“We kept on coming back to a sense of urgency, we didn’t want to have to wait, and we’re curious about how this gets paid for,” said Karen Schwarz, who added that a personal pet peeve was bus stops that didn’t have shade.

Although TBX critics didn’t seem convinced that FDOT has turned over a new leaf, Moran insists that Tampa Bay Next isn’t just a name change.

“This is a change to the approach to the program and people think we’re here to sell a project right now, we are not here to do that,” she said. “This is your chance to be part of a solution, to come to the table with ideas. We hear a lot about what people want and don’t want. This is acting to determine what do we want as a community.”

Moran elicited boos when she explicitly told the audience that “express lanes are one of the options on the table.”

“We’re happy to talk to you about the other options, but tonight is about building consensus.”

With express lanes on the table, though, true consensus might not be possible. No construction is expected to begin until at least the end of 2019.

Collaborative meetings will continue (almost daily) in parts of the Bay area over the next few weeks. A schedule is available here.

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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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