The Florida Department of Transportation is holding an information session Wednesday evening at the Seminole Heights Library to update residents on the controversial highway expansion project known as Tampa Bay Express, or TBX. But beforehand a coalition of groups focused on smart growth, transportation solutions and historic preservation plans on protesting the TBX plan. Michelle Cookson is with Sunshine Citizens, part of the Stop TBX Coalition; she thinks TBX will impact neighborhoods like Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights.
“FDOT is doing a presentation. They’re calling it a ‘Community Engagement Meeting.’ This has been rescheduled. When hurricane Hermine–I guess Tropical Storm Hermine came through. So, this is a prior meeting that had to be cancelled because of weather. However, we understand what’s going to presented.
“These materials have been shown previously. In our opinion, it’s been presenting their complete disregard for the communities. They continue to actively disrupt and decimate. You know they spent $200,000 of taxpayer money in what was supposed to be the gathering of community input. These are the results from a series of charettes in the prior year. After doing all that, their conclusion is refusing, still, to listen to the constant, consistent, demand for transit, from the community.”
So, you say that they’ve not been listening to your demands. Then, why do you think that people are so interested in coming out tonight and still voicing their concerns?
“We have consistently said what we need in this community, across the entire region: we want preservation not mitigation. We don’t want to be told that “Ok we heard all that and we’re still gonna tell you: you can’t have any of that. You’ll take this or else.” I mean, if their forgone conclusion, going into this was: ‘We won’t do anything but TBX.’, how can they expect any other outcome than the community saying: ‘Never TBX.’ We want innovation. We need transportation, not a wider, taxed, highway.”
Let’s back up a little bit and just remind our listeners what TBX is, from the whole scale of the project to the specific parts that you are concerned about.
“TBX stands for–its an acronym for–Tampa Bay Express. What FDOT has done has taken an old highway study from 1989, dusted it off, and now applied variable rate toll lanes to it. These toll lanes aren’t like the Selmon [Expressway] or the Veterans [Expressway] that drivers are used to. They are a series of long stretches of a lane that people get in and then pay a rate, that can change.
“So, during peak times that rate can go up to $2.00 per mile. At a time, you’re in an 8-mile stretch, that adds up pretty quickly each way, say, in a daily commute. It’s over 87 miles that it’s projected to be applied. It’s across all our highways in our region. It will not solve congestion.
“These kinds of projects are already opened in other parts of the country and they’re failing. So, this business model, that they’re doubling down on, is something that other areas are already abandoning in favor of more productive, more efficient, transportation methods that move more people and goods more efficiently.”
Earlier you touched on preservation. What role does preservation play in your opposition to TBX?
“We have always maintained–and we find it incredibly disappointing–when we went to DOT in the past year, we said to them ‘Can you, if you’re telling us that you don’t have the funding for this project, why is there such a rush to push this through and also, can you stop taking properties if you’re claim is that we don’t even know where this highway is going to go yet?’
“It’s so anathema to all of the good, beneficial things that have been happening in the heart of our city, in the urban core of Tampa, to continue to see this policy happen where they take properties, they board them up, and allow them to deteriorate to the point where then they say “Oh well. We gotta tear this down.” There’s been a rapid increase in destruction and demolition of properties in the core of our city, in an area that is absolutely revitalizing and seeing an astounding increase in value.
“That’s important for your listeners to understand, too, because the city of Tampa stands to lose the most. That is tax revenue that goes away, that the state never reimburses. As they then add on the additional cost of where this highway interacts with our city and the maintenance around it. We lose and lose and lose as they take our tax dollars to build this, tax us again to use it and then tax us again, when, ultimately it fails.”
You talked about the city of Tampa losing tax revenue, for example. There are some members of the Tampa City Council who are fighting back. So, what are the avenues now, for what could happen if there are elected officials or citizens who still want to try to get FDOT to listen to their concerns? What are some avenues that people can take?
“I would encourage everyone, first, to always go to www.stopTBX.com. There is a ‘Take Action’ tab where they can learn exactly who they should contact regarding their opposition to the project. There’s also a calendar of events.
“Consistently doing what we’ve done for a year is getting us heard and we are making advances and turning the conversation to where it ought to be: on transit.
“In terms of elected officials, we’ve always maintained it makes sense, politically, to continue to support this project, which reflects something that the rest of the nation is turning away from.
“At the federal DOT level, the Secretary Fox just announced the other day a tremendous move towards autonomous vehicles. Innovation of technology already happening in real time. We can’t afford to sit around and keep saying this 1989 solution is our future. We’re losing out in a lot of ways.
“Another way that people can get involved and I encourage them, again, where we started our conversation is to come out tonight to the Seminole Heights library at 4711 Central Avenue. We will be protesting this meeting, outside, starting at 6:30 p.m.
“There are also a series of community engagement meetings that DOT is calling their Library Tour. We will continue to have a presence, at these events, all over the county and the region.
“I think its imperative for them to understand this is not just the middle of the city or a Tampa issue only. Many, many people from many backgrounds are very concerned about this waste of billions of dollars, that could be better applied and actually moving us forward.”