Transforming Tampa Bay: Off the ramp

click to enlarge A graphic shown during a Jan. 29 FDOT meeting shows the proposed Highland Avenue on/off ramp. - COURTESY BRIAN WILLIS
Courtesy Brian Willis
A graphic shown during a Jan. 29 FDOT meeting shows the proposed Highland Avenue on/off ramp.


Did you hear about the Tampa Express Lanes Project?

No? Not surprising, since the state seems to be keeping it under the radar, but here’s the deal:

Governor Rick Scott wants to plow $6 billion ($3.3 billion to start) into a roadway construction project that would create so-called “Lexus Lanes” in which paying customers can move at faster speeds. Among the harmful side effects: Highland Avenue, the quiet road bordering the new Waterworks Park and Ulele Restaurant, would feed a busy on/off ramp — seriously threatening a beautiful new urban space.


Apart from the two-tiered society the Lexus Lanes would foster, this is construction that spawns destruction. Mumbling his mantra of “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” the governor is foisting an unnecessary, wildly expensive roadway “improvement” project on Tampa with no consideration of the negative impact of additional on/off ramps on pedestrians, bicyclists, historic structures and urban design.

And, of course, this plan does not include any provisions for rail transit. None. The same-old, same-old mindset of more pavement, more fumes, more congestion will be borne out again. 

Is there an upside to the proposed Tampa Express Lanes Project? Maybe. FDOT Senior Manager Ming Gao explains, “Express lanes provide an ideal environment for express bus service. We have seen the success of the I-95 Express Bus service in South Florida. As part of the Tampa Bay Express project, we are exploring with our local partners the feasibility of implementing express bus service in express lanes.”

Express bus service would be great, but where will the additional funding come from to subsidize it? In an attempt to involve and improve local bus companies, HART and PSTA could get federal grants to help build the toll lanes and benefit from their equity share in the express lanes by getting a portion of the toll revenues.

Why not have transit companies and the highway authorities work together in pursuit of federal funds which would benefit both? FDOT should be working with our local transit agencies to improve not only highways but transit in the Bay area. Cooperation could be a win-win.

The overall question of funding is really up in the air. FDOT’s official answer to funding questions is the following: ”FDOT is doing PD&E’s [Planning, Design & Engineering studies] and will evaluate impacts and address appropriately. Funding will be through our normal process. At the same time, it is a high priority for portions of the Interstate Master Plan to move forward as part of a public-private partnership. Which segments move forward will be dependent on the funding availability and statutory cap.”

Huh?

When the expansion of I-4 took place 15 years ago, over 40 historic homes were moved from the path of the highway and relocated to an adjacent Ybor neighborhood as the result of a negotiated agreement between the preservation community, the city and FDOT. The federal government recognized the huge neighborhood losses which took place during the original interstate construction by giving local communities a process, Section 106, which allows locals to weigh in on proposed federal projects that impact historic communities.

Hopefully, FDOT will act thoughtfully when planning their construction... but the larger question is should this project move forward at all?
Brian Willis, local attorney and president of Connect Tampa Bay, is skeptical.

“For years, we’ve been been debating about how to pay for better bus and rail service. Hillsborough County is on a 50-year road repair schedule. Our community has so many other transportation needs, it’s outrageous for them to spend so much on this project.”
Phil Compton of the Sierra Club sums up the situation.

“FDOT proposes to spend billions for a plan that no one gets to vote on. In America, Tampa is ranked #2 as the most dangerous place for pedestrians and bicyclists… we haven’t spent the money on making our streets safe that all other cities in America have. It would take a small percentage of this $3 billion to make our streets safe.”

Did you attend the public hearings on this proposal? I’ve got my ear to the ground, and I didn’t know that they were scheduled. However, the time frame for weighing in is still open. You can call, write or email your concerns about this proposed interstate expansion at tampabayexpress.com. Please check out the video on this site; it features the most insipid animated character (a talking car) that public money has ever been wasted on:


More forums are scheduled for next week on other important transportation questions for Hillsborough County. After 20 years of local leaders coming together, they’re launching GoHillsborough.org, a series of public gatherings to find out where we should spend public money.
Tuesday, February 17, is a big night for transportation talk, like a pub crawl with urbanist wonks and no booze. There’s a GoHillsborough meeting from 6-8 p.m. at Mt. Olive AME Church, 1902 W. LaSalle Street, in West Tampa, and only 1 1/2 miles away, from 7-8:30 p.m., there’s the Tampa Rally for Transit and Safe Streets at the HCTA Building, 3102 N. Habana Ave., offering more conversation and dessert.
Maybe the after-party should be at the Hub — if we can make our way past all the Bob’s Barricades to get there! 

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