Since the Tampa Bay Express project first entered local consciousness this past summer, residents from the neighborhoods most affected by the project have questioned whether the cost of destroying historic buildings and stifling the growth is worth the trouble.
The project, which would affect parts of the Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights and Ybor City neighborhoods, involves expanding I-275 to include toll roads, a measure officials say will generate revenue and ease the highway’s notorious traffic woes.
In the months since they learned of the potentially devastating project, residents have packed local government meetings whenever discussion of the project was on the agenda. They’ve formed two groups: Sunshine Citizens and the Stop TBX Coalition, which has been organizing meetings to spread awareness and coordinate protests.
Now, they’re taking to the streets.
The first of these organized protests against TBX came on a rainy Saturday morning, when roughly 200 protesters donned yellow ponchos and marched along the mile-long corridor in Tampa Heights, representing where the expansion is intended to go. The vast majority of those marching were local residents, many of whom invested substantially in their once (and, in some places still) blighted neighborhoods to create the communities that the project would affect.
“We’ve invested a lot in this community and we’re not going to let FDOT ruin it,” said longtime Seminole Heights civic activist Kimberly Overman. “We have worked hard for the last 20, 30, 40 years to build this urban community into what it is now. We now have people in our city that want to live here, and we do not want it torn down.”
Activists fighting TBX recently had their cause bolstered by evidence suggesting the highway expansion project would be a waste of money.
In January the progressive-leaning U.S. Public Interest Research Group released “Highway Boondoggles 2,” a study of the 12 worst highway projects in the country, which found TBX to be the only Florida project to earn a spot on the list.
The study cites direct quotes from Florida Department of Transportation representatives making clear that TBX won’t solve congestion, and even uses DOT statistics to consider that traffic will likely increase on I-275 with TBX. PIRG goes as far as to suggest more beneficial ways to make use of the $3.3 billion that is expected to be spent on the project, alternative such as the purchase of CSX tracks and construction of Orlando-style commuter rail, which would cost an estimated $674 million.
The report, of course, adds fuel to the fire for opponents of TBX.
“There are people who have invested hundreds and thousands and in some cases millions of dollars in this community in order to serve the residents that live here and to help the other communities here do well,” Overman said. “To have a 20-year-old plan with bad data decide our future and destroy a community that has worked hard to build itself is a crime.”
Despite the distaste for the project by locals and evidence disputing its financial viability, political leadership has been hesitant to take any action. The Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization Board of Directros, who would be able to kill the project, has taken a wait-and-see approach. That board consists largely of elected officials from the city and throughout the county.
The only elected official present at Saturday’s protest was City Councilman Guido Maniscalco, whose district includes Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights.
TBX’s future will be decided when the MPO meet on June 7.
Still, with four months to spread awareness of TBX and its new boondoggle reputation, largely through holding more events such as the march Saturday, organizers such as Sunshine Citizens’ Amanda Brown have reason to be optimistic.
“This is amazing how many people have come out today,” she said. “Hopefully the MPO is watching and all our elected officials are watching and they have a clear message that the people do not want TBX. This project is wrong for Tampa. It’s going to destroy hundreds of properties. It’s just wrong.”