Jim Boxold, the head of the Florida Department of Transportation, announced last month that he was calling for a “reset” regarding the Tampa Bay Express, acknowledging that the rollout of the controversial multi-billion dollar toll lanes project hasn’t been as smooth as the department had originally intended.
To its critics, that would be an understatement. They contend that the state agency hasn’t taken their seriously at all their concerns about what the project might do to the neighborhoods in Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights and V.M. Ybor. When the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Organization approved putting the TBX once again on its five-year Transportation Improvement Project (TIP) last June, it was opposed by MPO chairman Les Miller, who said that the department had failed to provide the community outreach that they promised at the MPO’s meeting in June of 2015.
The project is intended to 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.
On Thursday, FDOT officials appeared before the Tampa City Council to clarify that the reset is primarily focused on community engagement. Bill Jones, FDOT’s Director of Transportation Development, explained that would include “listening sessions” with community working groups.
Later on in the discussion, Councilman Mike Suarez asked a second FDOT official to explain the reset.
“The reset, in my mind sir, is for us to do better engagement with the community, to get bigger input, ” said Ed McKinney, planning and environmental administrator with FDOT. He said that would mean looking at the transportation system “in a holistic perspective,” which included bringing in people from the city, county, transit agencies and business communities to have an “open dialogue” to address the region’s transportation needs.
“There’s never been an alternative that’s every been presented to us other than the plan concerning the TBX lanes,” complained Suarez, who like other council members, has spoken out critically about the project while acknowledging that he has little power to stop it. “I don’t know if that ‘s because you vetted every other plan and then brought that to us, because of engineering concerns, because of right-of-way concerns, because of some other issue, because that’s never been communicated to us, and that’s part of the problem.”
“Is this worth it? Will it be worth it? asked councilman Guido Maniscalco, one of four people on the MPO board to oppose putting the TBX on the MPO’s TIP last June. “Or will we look down 20 years later after it’s constructed and say we need to expand more?”
The District 6 councilman stressed that the region is begging for mass transit, but it lacked options. “I wish we could have municipal city elections to have a vote on whether to put a sales tax referendum forward to get that type of funding from FDOT to build some type of robust transit system,” he mused in vain. State law only allows counties to put such referendums on the ballot, and that could only change through a vote in the state legislature. But they have shown no inclination to do so.
McKinney said that the lack of a transit is regional problem, not just a problem for the city of Tampa or for FDOT.
Councilman Harry Cohen said that the region needs everything – buses, roads, ferries and trains – but added that FDOT needs to prepare for driverless automobiles as well.
McKinney said that FDOT is having conversations currently on how to address that, adding that ” maybe there’s an opportunity for a future dialogue on how that looks.”