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Tampa town hall focuses on negative impacts of proposed I-275 toll lanes

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

A coalition of Tampa activists who hosted a two-hour town hall meeting in Seminole Heights on Tuesday night appeared to have two main goals that they wanted to impart on the hundreds who crowded into the American Legion Post No. 111.

The first goal was to convince them that the proposal by the Florida Department of Transportation for a new tolled highway would be a disaster for residents in Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights on a number of fronts. The second goal was to compel them to attend the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization’s meeting next Tuesday afternoon and let the MPO staff know that they oppose the plan.

“We cannot sit here and allow the DOT to use plans that they put together 20 years ago to put forward plans that will last for the next 50 years,” Tampa Heights activist Lena Young Green said, kicking off the two-hour event. “Many of us have walked this path for a long time. We can make things happen if we keep our voices together and keep on going.”

The event was hosted by Sunshine Citizens, and included members from a host of other organizations who provided information and sometimes sharp opinions to express their anger at the proposal.

Chris Vela, president of the group, said that the plan was against the interests of the community, citing the MPO’s Imagine 2040 Plan that listed toll roads dead last in a survey. “Our message to you is bring your friends to the county center on August 4th and (tell the MPO to) take the TBX out of the TIP.” (TBX is the acronym for Tampa Bay Express, TIP is the Transportation Improvement Plan).

TBX is part of the state’s transportation master plan for adding express toll lanes on I-275 and I-4 generally from south of Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg to north of Bearss Avenue, on I-4 from I-275 to west of the Polk Parkway, and on I-75 from State Road 674 in Ruskin to north of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in New Tampa. The first of the projects would occur on I-275.

It’s part of an overall strategy that has led the state to lead the nation in the construction of such toll roads, with over 700 miles of such roads already in play.

Express lanes would be added at the intersection of I-275 and I-4 known and on I-275 from the new Howard Frankland Bridge through the State Road 60 interchange, near Tampa International Airport.

During their presentation, Ricky Peterika and Taryn Sabia from the group Urban Charrette said the proposed toll lanes would end up hampering actions done by city leaders in recent years, such as the InVision plan for West Tampa.

“The InVision plan looks at better connectivity between our neighborhoods and downtown,” said Peterika. “The difference is that TBX limits connectivity.” He said that the regional nature of TBX is centered  between the three main employment districts in Tampa — the Temple Terrace/USF area, downtown and Westshore.  “This is all for commuters.”

“Those of us living in the urban area don’t have access to the toll lanes,” added Sabia, referring to how the plan calls for eliminating the Floribraska entrance and exits on I-275, and the downtown east exit gets converted to an express lane only, leaving only the Ashley exit for city residents to get into downtown.

Some blamed state officials for pushing toll lanes on downtown Tampa.

“I’m not here to vilify anyone, said Adam Metz from Sunshine Citizens as a photo of Gov. Rick Scott was shown on a video screen. “But he’s chief executive of our state, and we need to hold him accountable.” He accused FDOT and other government officials only interested in building roads, not emphasizing transit.

Other speakers bemoaned the fact that while express lanes are planned for Orlando and have been in place in Miami for years, those areas have been funded for transit projects, specifically SunRail and Tri Rali in Miami, while Hillsborough County has done nothing. Hillsborough has languished on transit, though there is a GO Hillsborough proposal that could come before voters next year to remedy that (though as of now, more funding would go toward roads).

Matthew Suarez had sobering news for those in attendance, declaring that TBX is already underway. Referring to the filling in of I-275 from Bearss to the downtown interchange as part of the plan, he said, “This project has already started, folks. It’s already started.”

He also expressed concerns that expansion of the highway could impact Water Works Park in Tampa Heights.

The MPO meeting on transportation will take place on Tuesday, August 4, from 5:30-8 p.m. on the 26th floor of the County Center in downtown Tampa.

Meanwhile, there will be a discussion of the Tampa Bay Express plan on WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa on Thursday, July 30, from 12:15-1 p.m. Representatives from FDOT, the MPO and Sunshine Citizens will participate. This reporter will host the program.

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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