(Updated) For the third consecutive summer, hundreds of people are expected to fill downtown Tampa’s County Center Tuesday night for a prime-time edition of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization’s monthly meeting.
They will specifically address the MPO’s Transportation Improvement Project update (TIP), a list of transportation projects in Hillsborough County to be funded over the next five years.
Inside that TIP for the third year in a row is the Tampa Bay Next project, formerly known as Tampa Bay Express (TBX), and still controversial more than two years after the Florida Department of Transportation initially presented it to the public.
As previously presented, The TBX project was the biggest public works project in the history of the Tampa Bay area. 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 have contended that the plan would negatively impact a low-income and minority area of Tampa, who had little input on what was happening in their neighborhood.
The Tampa Bay Times reported a year ago that 80 percent of the registered voters living at properties that Florida’s Department of Transportation plans to demolish are black and Latino.
In December, now former FDOT Secretary Jim Boxold told a state Legislative Committee that it was time to hit the reset button on TBX.
“We probably have 2-3 years before that project is what we call ‘production ready,’ ready to turn dirt,” he said at the time. “And so we’re going to sort of hit the reset button, bring in additional staff or different staff to manage that project and work more intensively with the local communities.”
Boxold is no longer with the DOT; Nor is district secretary Paul Steinman and district director of transportation development Debbie Hunt, the public face of the project in recent years.
At the first public unveiling of the Tampa Bay Next project last month, an FDOT consultant said that the toll lanes portion of the project were “under re-evaluation.”
“FDOT is doing exactly what everybody asked them to do last year,” said Danielle Moran, program consultant for FDOT on the Tampa Bay Next project. “They have slowed down the pace of the project to wait for the results of the Transit Feasibility plan.”
That study recently came up with five transit routes that are being considered a “starting point.”
Michelle Cookson is with the activist group Sunshine Citizens, a coalition formed to oppose TBX.
“Even though the FDOT has claimed we are in a ‘reset’ and has rebranded the highway project, it is still very much alive within their new Tampa Bay Next initiative and is called out for funding in the TIP plan being reviewed and voted on this evening,” she told SPB in an email Tuesday morning.
“We have always pointed out that the old days of private meetings with special interest groups and then sending them out as ‘project champions’ to sell the public are over,” Cookson says. “When $6-9 billion of our tax dollars are at stake, we need to see accountability and true transparency.”
Cookson also complains that FDOT has not explained to the public what exactly the new process that TBX/Tampa Bay Next actually is or how long it will last.
The meeting is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. and end, well, that’s uncertain at this time. MPO officials say that all persons wishing to speak must sign in no later than 8 p.m.
Last year’s meeting lasted more than eight hours, ending after 2 a.m.
The County Center is located at 601 E. Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa.