They came by the dozens Tuesday night — activists and just regular residents from Seminole and Tampa Heights — all imploring the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Organization not to include the controversial Tampa Bay Express (TBX) project in the MPO’s Transit Improvement Project (TIP).
They were longtime residents and some who have only lived in the neighborhoods bordering I-275 and/or I-4 for a short time, but they were all vehemently against the $3 billion proposal to add express lanes to both highways in the downtown core, as well as rebuild the northbound lanes of the Howard Frankland Bridge.
And speaking for the project? Eight people, most of whom wore suits (or in the case of the representative for Jeff Vinik‘s group, a dress), none of whom are believed to live in the district, and several of them representing major business organizations.
In the end, after three hours of discussion, the MPO voted 13-1 to support the project. The only dissenter was Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco, who said he simply doesn’t believe what the Florida Department of Transportation seems certain of — that adding these express lanes will relieve the traffic congestion, ranked the 11th worst in the nation.
I don’t think we’ll have the volume of cars using those express lanes that will alleviate enough traffic,” the councilman told SPB early Wednesday morning. “One thing I learned a long time ago was the trick to alleviating traffic congestion is not to widen the roads, it’s about taking cars off the road, and offering alternative methods of transportation….that could be a rail system, or improving the bus system.”
Many residents are resentful that they have no voice in the matter, save for speaking out at public hearings like Tuesday’s MPO meeting. But when it comes to adding more transit, they argue, they’re told they have to vote for a sales tax — which could be the case if the Go Hillsborough plan on a half-cent transportation tax goes before Hillsborough County voters in 2016.
In the meantime, the FDOT is already working on the TBX plan.
Maniscalco is by far the youngest local public official elected in Hillsborough County at 31, and his perspective seems to best represent the millennials and others who pleaded with the MPO to remove the TBX plan from the TIP. He says his generation in Tampa, like in the rest of the country, is simply less into driving cars and more into using alternative forms of transportation. And he says his generation will be paying taxes on the project a lot longer than others.
After the more than three hours of discussion last night, MPO Chairman and Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller called for the vote to keep the TBX in the TIP, but added some “caveats,” including calling for the DOT to meet with community leaders to address the fears and concerns about what the project will do to their neighborhoods.
He also addressed citizens’ complaints that the FDOT was working off a 20-year-old plan, and said they would need to update that, as well as work with the city of Tampa to explore opportunities for bikes, pedestrians on Florida and Nebraska Avenues and Tampa Street.
“This is not the old FDOT,” agency representative Debbie Hunt said at the meeting, referring to how the department never engaged with the public when they went about creating the Interstates in the 1960s, tearing the neighborhood literally in half.
But several citizens criticized the department last night for doing a poor job of outreach at this point.
“You’re essentially building a whole new Interstate system, which, while not as aggressive, as it was in the 1960s with the original planning of I-275 and I-4, you’re (still) tearing into the fabric of these very delicate communities,” says Maniscalco, whose district includes Seminole Heights. “Like the people in my district, who have suffered so much, neighborhoods that were cut in half, split in two, and this resurgence and renaissance that is coming into these areas, and the new life that is being pumped into these neighborhoods. They didn’t choose to live in these areas because of Interstate expansion. They chose to live in these areas because of the genuine real neighborhoods that they saw.”
The project may begin within the next five years, dependent on funding. Hunt denied allegations by critics that this will be a public-private partnership, saying FDOT will be funding it exclusively.