On Thursday, the Tampa City Council (acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency), voted 4-1 to remove the controversial Tampa Bay Express toll lanes project from its five-year priority list of projects. It was a reflection of the persuasive arguments that critics of the Florida Department of Transportation-led project have making over the last year, and marks the second time that the council has voiced its opposition to the proposal. The move also follows the admission from Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller earlier this week that he will vote against the TBX when it comes before the Metropolitan Planning Organization on June 22. Miller chairs the MPO, and he said he was simply following through on his promise to oppose the measure last year unless he saw significant outreach by FDOT in the community.
Such moves concern Rick Homans with the Tampa Bay Partnership. Homans is helping leading the “TBXYes” campaign, a coalition of over two dozen business interests in the Tampa Bay who formed to combat what they claim was misinformation being spread about the TBX by their opponents.
“We felt that the opposition to the project is really rooted in an ideology that is represented as ‘we don’t need anymore investment in highways and roads, that should not be part of the transportation plan for the future,’ and we fundamentally disagree,” Homans said on Thursday afternoon at the Partnership’s offices in Tampa’s Westshore District. “We felt that it was absolutely critical to bring a voice of reason and bring some facts to the table, and to articulate the urgency and critical nature of this project.”
Homans said that if the MPO were to vote against the TBX at their June 22 meeting, the message would be sent loud and clear that the region isn’t prepared to deal with its transportation challenges, and isn’t able to work together as a community around complex projects.
The FDOT has already said that if the Hillsborough area doesn’t want the project, whose first segment is expected to cost approximately $3.3 billion, it will send those dollars to other parts of the state. While some have accused the department of unfairly using that threat, Homans says he and his partners in the coalition take it extremely seriously.
At Thursday’s CRA meeting, City Councilman Frank Reddick said he was startled to learn that so many local residents in the areas that will be directly affected by the construction of the new lanes on Interstate 275 are black and Hispanic, and said that clinched his opposition to TBX.
“This is a disservice to the community, ” Reddick said. “We have gone thru this before, and I was a part of that process, and I’m just tired, ” he said, later adding with disgust that it was “time for this foolishness to stop.”
The Tampa Bay Express plan calls for a new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge, a revamped interchange at Interstates 275 and 4 and miles of toll lanes that run from Pinellas Park across to Plant City, north toward USF and south toward Manatee County. These toll lanes cost money each time a driver uses them and are seen by transportation officials as a way to ease congestion. It’s been nearly universally opposed by citizens living in the neighborhoods that have parcels of land removed to build the project, most noticeably in Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights and the V.M. Ybor neighborhood.
Those critics refer to the existence of toll lanes as “Lexus Lanes,” because only the financially elite can afford to drive on them. Homans assistant provided literature to this report rebutting that fact, stating that according to a 2014 Georgia Tech analysis of similar express lanes, the top five vehicles were Honda Accords, Honda Civics, Toyota Camrys, Ford F150s, and Nissan Altimas.
Homans says that he separates the TBX critics as 1) those who don’t believe that FDOT should be spending so much money on more road projects and 2) those in the affected neighborhoods who don’t want to see their communities separated. He says he’s sympathetic towards the latter, but not the former.
“The ideology group is all out to stop the project,” Homans says with concern in his voice. “That’s what we’re against. We’re for continued negotiations and collaboration with the neighborhoods in resolving those issues. We’re absolutely for that.” But he says TBX Yes is against those who want to persuade the MPO to oppose the project on June 22.
Michelle Cookson, a leading activist with the opposition group Sunshine Citizens, has chastised TBX Yes for its very existence, saying that the communities directly impacted by the TBX simply don’t want it, specifically mentioning millennials and Baby Boomers.
“Baby Boomers selling their homes and moving into cities for urban living and lifestyle don’t want TBX,” she wrote to SPB in an email. “How can the partnership support setting this area back by 15-20 years and seriously impact its ability to attract and retain employers that offer good wages and provide economic growth by advocating for TBX?”
Homans says he dislikes the implication that if you’re pro-TBX, you’re against adding transit to the region, saying he and the coalition prefer an “all of the above” basis. “We’re for a multimodal, balanced approached,” he says.
In a letter send to HART chairman and Tampa City Council Chairman Mike Suarez by FDOT’s Debbie Hunt last month, the agency says their express lanes policy allows public transit buses an exemption from paying tolls on express lanes. That’s a proposal that Homans says shows there’s no contradiction in supporting the TBX and mass transit. “It creates all kinds of options for people to work and live in different places.”
With less than two weeks to go before the MPO’s final vote on the matter, Homans says he’s taking nothing for granted, and grudgingly gives props to the Sunshine Citizens for fuzzing up the issue.
“Victory to them is cancelling a $3.3 billion transportation investment, so we take that very seriously, and we take nothing for granted, and we feel we have a real fight on our hands.”