At the crossroads: A new and respected intermediary enters the expressway expansion dispute

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Communication is good. If folks with seemingly no common ground can listen carefully to each other’s concerns, they may be able to find a place of shared values and build on that.

Certainly, that’s the hope in, say, the Middle East.

Or in the center of Hillsborough, where Tampa neighborhoods are at odds with the Florida Department of Transportation, and where detente is almost as challenging.

The topic is the proposed expansion of the Expressway (TBX) south from Bearss to the junction with I-4, west to the Westshore area, over the Howard Frankland bridge to Pinellas County, with a price tag of $3 billion.

This funding, which comes from the state of Florida’s Turnpike Authority, can only be used to create “paid toll lanes” with the revenue stream independent of the state legislature. The idea is that drivers will pay according to the time of day and level of congestion and this money will be adequate to repay the construction cost.

Although the math seems fuzzy to me, Governor Scott, who is intent upon the creation of these lanes in five urban areas throughout the state, insists that the numbers make sense. The timetable for the initiative is extremely ambitious, with construction due to commence before his term ends, which for projects of this magnitude is warp speed.

The neighborhoods potentially impacted by this project have spoken out about their concerns. To FDOT’s credit, and after some packed public meetings, its staff has gone beyond its usual practice of placing renderings in a room, scattering some notepads and staff around, and calling that “public input.”

FDOT has hired Taryn Sabia, the director of the Florida Center for Community Design and Research (FCCDR) at USF, to create genuine communication between neighborhood leaders and FDOT staff, with HART, City of Tampa and Hillsborough County Transportation pros thrown into the stew. Their ambition is to discover the elusive overlap among these different camps.

Sabia, who has Master’s degrees in both architecture and urban and community design, has high hopes for this series of workshops, which are currently scheduled for the next six months. By corralling the neighborhood leaders and the professional staffs and focusing on points of common concern, she hopes to develop specific improvements that both sides can agree upon.

For example, if an exit ramp is being built adjacent to a residential neighborhood, what should its height be? Landscaping? Sound walls?

The original interstate was designed and constructed in the 1960s, and since that time the public’s expectations have risen. Now, by law, natural and manmade assets must be protected. One glaring example: The water displaced by the road used to just run into the river. Today there must be ponds to catch this flow and allow it to slowly percolate into the ground. These water catchment basins could be amenities, creating water views.

Another potential improvement: park-and-ride lots adjacent to the expressway, allowing easy on-off access for buses, which could use the “Lexus lanes” to benefit transit users.

One of the philosophical sticking points in the conversation is the premise that this will be a “Design-Build” project, which means that FDOT signs a contract that outlines costs and expectations in pretty broad terms. The local folks only get to see the final contract before it’s signed, and if it’s not specific enough about materials, heights, aesthetics, landscaping and all the details people care about, we are stuck with the design-build guy’s choices.

A painful example of a design-build disappointment is the current construction in the Westshore area. The contractors promised a “clear span” over Cypress and Dale Mabry, but then found that they could save over $2 million by placing columns in those roads and lowering the bridges — but that screws up the bike/ped trail by creating a double-back to get around the column. Also, the lower bridges allowed the contractors to eliminate the noise walls protecting the adjacent neighborhoods of Carver City and Lincoln Gardens; residents are understandably irate.

Design-Build saves money and speeds the timeframe of a project, but it really disempowers the local community from oversight. The MPO can’t weigh in once the project has been approved, and the city and county are muted. But if the decision is made to slow things down and not go design-build, then the TBX funding could be moved to another location in Florida, and that would mean the critical interchanges at Memorial in the Westshore area and in downtown

Tampa would not be improved for decades, killing any hope of a cross-county transit system.

Tampa Heights, where the interstate would expand a lot, would suffer a direct body blow from the construction, potentially demolishing the church which houses the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association. The Community Garden and Kaboom Playground can be easily relocated. Moving the church would be challenging, but doable.

The neighborhood is divided about whether to participate in the workshops or just stand in complete opposition to the proposal. Sabia, herself a neighbor, understands the conflict. She hopes folks will understand that taking a place at the table doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with the proposed construction.

TCCDR’s neighborhood-specific workshops will address a variety of subject areas, including design. Sabia expects this project will create some good for the community, commenting, “I have a lot of hope.” Considering the gap between the parties involved, Middle East peace seems a comparable aspiration. To take part, contact [email protected] 

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