In an effort to retool and “reset” the troubled Tampa Bay Express project, the Florida Department of Transportation led a coalition of local public officials and members of the community this week to St. Louis, where it spoke with officials there about how they worked with the community to rebuild a highway construction project.
Speaking before the Tampa City Council on Thursday, Bill Jones with the FDOT gave an update on TBX, and discussed the trip and how officials will meet next month to “debrief” on what they learned.
But City Councilman Frank Reddick apparently wasn’t aware of the trip and grew suspicious. He demanded that Jones provide the Council with a list of those people who went to St. Louis.
“It reminds me when I was growing up and when they brought the interstate through the neighborhood and displaced a lot of us,” Reddick said. “You find a way to pay these people off … and then they support what you want done. And I’m starting to see that happen.”
One of the biggest concerns about the construction of the TBX project is the displacement of citizens who live in Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights and V.M. Ybor.
For two decades, FDOT has been buying properties in those areas for the right-of-way for what has ended up to be the TBX project, which was only announced to the public in 2015. Critics contend that the plan would negatively impact a low-income and minority concentrated area of Tampa, who had little input on what was happening in their neighborhood. The Tampa Bay Times reported last year that 80 percent of the registered voters living at properties that Florida’s Department of Transportation plans to demolish are black and Latino.
Council Chair Yolie Capin said that her family had been displaced when construction for the highway interstates in Tampa began in the late 1950’s. She said the difference between then and now was that there is now the internet or the CRA. “That’s a huge difference,” she said. “We’re going to make sure to hold DOT accountable for all of the things that take place in our neighborhoods.”
Capin said it was very difficult for her as a youth to move into a new neighborhood, and cautioned Jones to not forget that it was human beings whose lives may be upended because of the construction of the project.
Jones explained that there were ten members of the community who had their trip paid for by front grants from the Federal Highway Administration. The six representatives from Hillsborough County were chosen by Les Miller, the chair of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization.
East Tampa businesswoman and community activist Dianne Hart was one community member chosen by Miller to attend the trip.
“If you saw Facebook you knew I was on the trip,” she told the council. Other members of the coalition also prominently posted photographs on their Facebook pages as well. She told Reddick that not everybody on the trip is in favor of the TBX.
Hart added that she was impressed that the Missouri Dept. of Transportation “really listened to their citizens.” She said she hoped it would be an opportunity for FDOT to pay attention to what Tampa citizens are concerned about. “They really see that without the community’s input and without the trust of the community, it will never be able tot take place. There will be a constant controversy around this forever, and it will never happen, if the two sides don’t come together.”
Councilmembers Harry Cohen and Guido Maniscalco are members of the Hillsborough MPO, and were also part of the coalition which went to St. Louis. Cohen said his number one takeaway from the trip was discovering how the community and the government were able to work together in harmony on the project. That included the government building parks and bike paths, and in some cases, not removing houses that were part of the original plan.
Cohen also noted that there was an obvious difference in the two communities.
In St. Louis, the public has been supportive of taxing themselves to improve their transportation services. Notably, Hillsborough County has not, though the citizens were not even given that opportunity when County Commissioners declined to put up a transit referendum for a vote last year. “These things didn’t happen for free,” he said. “They paid for this stuff, and that’s why they have a train system and other forms of transportation to move people around.”
The Tampa Bay Express project is 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.
Suarez asked Jones if the debriefing of those who visited St. Louis scheduled would be open to the public. Jones initially said it would not be. Suarez suggested to Jones that he open it up. “There’s nothing wrong with having the public there,” Suarez said. “It’s probably the smart thing to do, since you just mentioned the date on a public forum.”
Last December, then FDOT Secretary Jim Boxold announced that it was time for the TBX project to hit the “reset” button.
“We probably have 2-3 years before that project is what we call ‘production ready,’ ready to turn dirt,” he said. “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.”
Jones told council members on Thursday that in this reset period, FDOT is not purchasing any right-of-way acquisitions, though they won’t turn down citizens who approach them about selling their homes.