A spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) admits that while most complaints filed with his department regarding transportation projects may have some cause, most of them are not merited, and thus no action is ever taken against them.
His comments come a day after it was revealed that federal officials have agreed to conduct a preliminary civil rights investigation of the Tampa Bay Express, the controversial project from the Florida Department of Transportation that would expand what is known as the Downtown Tampa Interchange – specifically adding toll lanes to I-275. The proposed project has been met with substantial disapproval in the neighborhoods that would be directly impacted by the expansion of the highway, notably in Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights and V.M. Ybor.
Last week Kevin Resler, the National Title VI Program Coordinator with the Office of Civil Rights with the FHWA, contacted Tampa resident Matthew Suarez to announce that his department had accepted his complaint against the FDOT for preliminary investigation.
Suarez had contacted the department to register his complaints, writing that it would great harm to minorities.
“Basis for this suspected violation is the intent of the Governor of Florida & Former Florida Secretary of Transportation to prioritize the needs & interests of an economic development group (the Westshore Alliance) over those that would best serve the general public,” Suarez wrote. He later aded that, “Basis for this suspected violation is the intent to prioritize the needs & interests of property developers ahead of those relating to people of varying races & national origins, in addition to people of color who are to be directly & adversely impacted by the TBX, DTI & WMMC.”
“We do get complaints like this quite a lot,” Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, told SaintPetersBlog.com on Friday. “Most of the complaints that are filed with us are not merited. We can’t find anyways to substantiate the claims. It doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some cause there. In most cases we can’t go very far with it, but we feel that we’re duty bound to at least explore the complaints that are filed with us to make that initial determination: is there a reason for further investigation?’
But the Office of Civil Rights with the FHWA has found merit on some complaints.
Most notably was in 2013, when the Federal Highway Administration ruled that officials in Beavercreek, Ohio had violated anti-discrimination laws by blocking bus service from nearby Dayton.
The Beavercreek case marked the first time civil rights activists had successfully filed an administrative complaint with the FHWA against a public agency for violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A 2014 documentary on the incident reported that since the law was passed in 1964, dozens of these complaints have been filed, but not until Beavercreek did advocates use this mechanism to compel action by a local government, according to the maker of a new documentary. The decision gave Dayton area transit riders access to a bus-route to a growing, mostly-white suburb that had sought to keep them out.
“It was historic for us,” Hecox said. “It proved that the system works.”
Although Suarez learned last Friday, April 29, that the FHWA would begin investigating the TBX, most of the public was in the dark until Tampa City Councilman Frank Reduce unwittingly revealed it at the council’s meeting on Thursday.
When questioning Tampa Police Chief Eric Ward, Reddick asked Ward if he was aware that the city of Tampa was under investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Ward said he was not, because in fact, the city is not under any investigation.
Reddick admitted later on Thursday that he had misspoke, and that the investigation was regarding the Tampa Bay Express project that he had received an email about the day before.
Hecox says that it may be a month – give or take- before his department will have gathered enough evidence to determine whether the investigation deserves to go further.
Meanwhile, the project slowly continues. FDOT’s District 7 office mailed out letters to residents in part of tampa about the schedule of upcoming meetings to be held in the city regarding the project.
A request for comment from FDOT was not answered by the time of this posting.