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Critics of Tampa Bay Express project now targeting Chamber of Commerce

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

A Tampa grassroots organization still smarting over the decision by the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Organization to approve a controversial toll lanes project in Tampa is now directing its ire at the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Sunshine Citizens is a nascent group formed to oppose what is known as the Tampa Bay Express project, a multibillion-dollar plan from the Florida Department of Transportation that would add tolled express lanes on I-275 from the Gateway area of St. Petersburg to Bearss Avenue in north Tampa. The lanes would provide extra capacity for cars whose drivers were willing to pay a variable toll, based on congestion.

Two weeks ago over 50 members of the community went before the MPO to denounce the plan, and asked the agency not to include the TBX in the MPO’s Transportation Improvement Plan. The MPO approved it on a 13-1 vote.

Fewer than 10 people came out in support of the plan. One of them was Bob Rohrlack, the president/CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Now Sunshine Citizens is calling on their members and others in the community to contact Rohrlack and/or Ron Christaldi, the Chamber’s current chair. And they’ve prepared talking points to help guide them.

The letter/taking points questions whether the Chamber board even read the TBX plan. “Why are you advocating for destroying local business and sending money out of Hillsborough County and Tampa, to Pasco and Hernando citizens?” it begins.

“When you step forward and claim on record at a public hearing that you are speaking for your 1,200 members who employ over 500,000 people primarily in Hillsborough County, you really owe it to your membership to do more research before committing to such an economically precarious plan.

TBX is disastrous and will cause a chilling effect on economic development with endless highway construction.

Why are you in favor of TAXING citizens twice — once to build these lanes, and again to use them? How could you support this plan that leaves taxpayers, and business owners, on the hook for this questionable financing plan?

Have you reviewed the TBX toll revenue model to see if the revenue collected covers the debt service payment?”

In an email exchange with this reporter, Michelle Cookson from Sunshine Citizens said the action directed at the Chamber is “one of many” that they will be rolling out.

The Tampa City Council, acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, voted in unison to oppose the plan — but its vote had no effect on the MPO’s decision, although City Councilman Guido Maniscalco was the lone MPO vote opposing the plan. (Harry Cohen and Lisa Montelione, two other members of the Council who sit on the MPO board, did support the TBX proposal.)

Other members of the MPO who approved the TBX plan are County Commissioners Ken Hagan, Kevin Beckner, Sandy Murman and Les Miller, the chairman of the board. Miller did include a provision in approving the plan that mandates that FDOT staffers must ensure that they meet and communicate with members of the community on the proposal.

Neighborhood activists in Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights say that the TBX plan to expand I-275 will be a disaster for their community, which in recent years has seen an increase in economic activity due to the creation of some of the most popular new restaurants in town. Specifically, they object to the Interstate widening, and say that the Department of Transportation should do more to promote transit as it has done with SunRail in Orlando and Tri-Rail in Miami.

But it was the Chamber’s Rohrlack who mentioned at the MPO meeting that Hillsborough County had the opportunity to begin construction for a transit plan, but voted it down in a 2010 referendum. For what it’s worth, the measure did get majority support inside the city of Tampa.  FDOT officials have noted that those projects in Orlando and Miami had a local funding component for transit, while Hillsborough does not have such funds currently available (hence the need for a ballot measure).

Discussions continue about putting another transportation tax before the voters in Hillsborough in 2016.

A request for comment from the Chamber was not answered before this story was posted.

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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