Three months after the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization approved putting the Tampa Bay Express project into its Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), dozens of angry residents in the neighborhoods to be affected by the project again expressed their opposition at the Hillsborough County Center in Tampa on Tuesday night.
“The TBX is the last thing the community wants $9 billion of their tax money spent on,” said Michelle Cookson, a leader with the activist group Sunshine Citizens that opposes the project. “We will keep coming back, again and again, to reiterate what our priorities are.”
The Tampa Bay Express Project would bring toll express lanes to I-275 in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, as well as to I-4 and I-75.
The citizen-activists say they will continue to fight, even though the majority of the MPO shows no signs of looking to reverse their Aug. 4 vote that included the project in the MPO’s Transit Improvement Project.
When the measure passed despite overwhelming opposition in August, MPO Chairman Les Miller said he would not allow the Florida Department of Transportation to replicate the devastation considered to have occurred to parts of Tampa when I-275 was built in the 1960s, and insisted that the state agency work with the community to ensure minimal damage to the Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights neighborhoods.
Local resident Liz Johnson, though, called those community meetings “charades,” and said Miller should stay “true” to his word if FDOT falls short, which she said they already had in those efforts. Called “charettes,” there have been several of them so far, including one last week in Tampa.
After members of the MPO recently criticized FDOT for seemingly cutting funding from local transportation projects instead of the TBX, FDOT spokeswoman Debbie Hunt said Tuesday night that the agency would be funding some of those projects.
Manny Leto praised board members, many of them members of the Hillsborough County Commission and Tampa City Council, saying they do many great things for the community. However, he said, this is a fundamental difference this time, and they’re on the wrong side of the residents.
“These are your people,” he said. “They don’t want this. Twenty years ago, this community was hemorrhaging young people. If you were young and talented, you wanted to work in IT, you wanted to be in a band, you wanted to start a business, you got out of this community. But this community has invited us to stay. We’ve stayed, and we’re tellin’ ya, we don’t want it.”
Despite the opposition, only one new MPO member expressed reservations about his August vote.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, on the ballot next year as he runs for the Democratic nomination for Clerk of the Circuit Court, inquired about when the issue would come back before the MPO. Told it would be next spring, he said he’ll be watching how the FDOT works with the community “extraordinarily closely,” adding that if his expectations weren’t met, “I am not going to be supporting it at the end.”
The only member of the MPO officially opposed to the TBX is Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco.