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Tampa City Council members challenge FDOT officials on TBX

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Officials with the Florida Department of Transportation have received plenty of criticism from upset Tampa residents about the proposed multibillion-dollar Tampa Bay Express project slated to begin construction in the next couple of years.

But for the first times in the past year since the plan to build toll lanes along Interstates 275, 4 and 75 was unveiled, those officials received an earful of criticism from public officials on Thursday.

Zenia Gallo, Project Manager and Sr. Right of Way Agent at FDOT, was explaining to the Tampa City Council the criteria for compensation people for their taking of their properties when councilman Frank Reddick interjected.

“What do you say about people living in their homes for 30 or 40 years, and all of a sudden they can be moved by eminent domain?” he asked Gallo. “Do you have any compassion for those people? What do you think about the psychological affect on these families? I don’t want to hear about all of this money talk.”

“I don’t know if the DOT is thinking about all of these things, but to stand here and put all of this emphasis on money? That’s not important,” Reddick continued. “What’s important is you’re dividing families. What’s important is your taking away businesses. You gotta think about the personal sacrifices.”

FDOT officials said as of today, they are looking at approximately 140 families and 33 businesses being uprooted for the planned expansion of the interstates, though there is not a due date when actual construction will begin.

Hundreds of residents in the affected communities of Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights and V.M. Ybor have continued to attend meetings and held monthly protests to resist the project, and the council as a whole on Thursday expressed their frustration with the department’s emphasis on toll roads vs. providing for mass transit for the city.

“If we’re going to spend billions of dollars, why don’t we invest those billions of dollars into transportation?” asked Councilman Charlie Miranda.

Councilwoman Lisa Montelione zeroed in on whether or not FDOT officials have been in contact with those households.

Gallo replied that there hasn’t been an urgency to such communications, since families only voluntarily are being asked if they would like to move, with the construction date yet unknown.

“You need to talk to these people individually maybe one-on-one so they can make education decisions,” Montelione countered. “When we talk about families and how those families are affected, we’re not talking about real estate, we’re talking about lives and paths and opportunities.” She went on to suggest that the state agency hire Urban Studies interns from USF to knock and doors of those families that will ultimately be affected to appraise them of the situation, so they can make adequate plans.

Three members of the Council -Montelione, Harry Cohen and Guido Maniscalco, sit on the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Organization board. Last August, Montelione and Cohen voted with the majority of their colleagues to include the TBX into what is called the MPO’s Transportation Improvement Project (TIP). Maniscalco was the lone board member to dissent.

So does most of the business community, and Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano, Port Director Paul Anderson, and Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who all say the project is a net plus in relieving traffic congestion and providing more transportation options for Tampa Bay area citizens.

If the TBX toll lanes plan goes forward, commuters would pay a toll that would escalate in price as the express lane fills up. It could take as long as a decade to come to completion.

But the project will come back before the MPO in June. Cohen pleaded for FDOT officials demonstrate a willingness to look at other alternatives to “how the urban project” is treated with TBX. “Because that is the number one issue that is standing in the way of getting some of the relief that we need for the airport, for the bridge and for some of the other areas that are affected by this project,” Cohen said.

Reddick said that if the DOT can’t come up with an alternative plan, the Council should vote to oppose the TBX project next month.

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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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