The major plan to put toll lanes on interstate highways in the Tampa Bay area and make other transportation changes has undergone a “reset;” but many transit activists who opposed what was originally called TBX think the new plan, known as Tampa Bay Next, is too similar to the first.
Michelle Cookson is secretary of Sunshine Citizens, a group a nonpartisan group focused on transit.
“TBX or Tampa Bay Express was opposed by the public, very strongly, from the minute it was revealed to them beginning in early 2015. Prior to that though, FDOT had been in private meetings and all sorts of meetings all over the community, meeting with groups like the Westshore Alliance, the Chamber of Commerce and other groups in preparation for the rollout of this project.
“When the public looked at it and they asked questions the answers were very unsatisfying; that had to do with the tremendous cost. You know, the projections were – and those numbers moved too – but, they were anywhere from $3.6 billion to $9 billion to come along in all of the interstates in the area; I-275, I-4, I-75, every major federal interstate highway was going to be widened, was gonna have a massive project solely to install variable-rate toll lanes. Those toll lanes are different from what people in the area are used to. So, instead of the Selmon (Expressway), where they say I’m willing to pay $1.50 to go this distance, these have a rate that changes based on demand and that can be as high as $2.00 per mile.
“The other thing about that is the stretches of these toll lanes are rather long. So, when you enter them you cannot get out of them for a set distance. Someone entering it, you know, will be in that lane for eight miles. When you add up that map – that’s just one way – for an average commuter, they’re looking at $16 daily and on top of that, as we dug into this, the claims that were being made — just the data wasn’t there to back it up. On average they were showing maybe someone could save 6 minutes off their commute. It just didn’t make any sense.
“We’ve always stressed, time and time again from the beginning, it’s not just being against this very poor project, it was also about being for what we need instead. This community knows this. There’s pent-up demand. They’ve been asking for it: we need transit. We need comprehensive, high-capacity systems that move more people, move goods, you know do a lot more in a more efficient manner, in a cleaner manner, in a way that’s going to position the area for great economic growth and to draw and attract better employers. We know how important this is and touches all our lives in so many areas. TBX was not that solution that the department claimed.”
Listen to the full interview here:
And then they rebranded it as “Tampa Bay Next.” How is that different?
“It isn’t. It’s the same song, different day. They’ve already said that express lanes are still in these plans. If you look at Tampa Bay Next you still see those three letters: TBX. So far in this process, it’s been blatantly clear the pent-up demand or desire for transit. The question remains: Will FDOT listen to the people and actually respond to those demands or are they just continuing to listen to the Westshore Alliance and other special interest groups ahead of the people? I mean, it’s just another exercise in checking a box on a list for the feds.”
And there was a meeting last night [Thursday June 8]. What happened there?
“What happened there is part of a process of what they’re calling a ‘work group.’ This has happened in one prior meeting. The one last night was supposed to be focused on downtown and East Tampa. People get in a room and they’re put into groups and they’re asked questions about what the last group talked about and they’re supposed to weigh in, they’re supposed to generate ideas, then they have come to consensus, then they roll up those results and the people in the room vote on it.
“I saw, felt and heard a lot of continued frustration in that room, where time and time again the public is being asked, under the guise of: ‘Oh, we’re listening and we want your input.’ The public consistently has come and said: ‘Well, here I am again, saying the same thing I’ve always said.’ It’s understandable if there’s a bit of unease and still those questions remaining about ‘What will you respond to? What are you gonna do with this information we’re providing to you?'”
And there’s a meeting next Tuesday of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization [MPO] and you are hoping that people will ask them to take the TBX project off of the Transportation Improvement Program [TIP]. Why’s that?
“That’s correct. Well, very simply: if this is a reset, then why is there $300 million earmarked for property acquisition in the TIP – and it is clearly labeled ‘For TBX.’ The MPO, they need to vote against that and remove it from the TIP.
“Here’s this money that’s still in the TIP that’s being used for TBX. We’re encouraging every member of the community to come out to the meeting next Tuesday, June 13th at 6:00 p.m. – that’s County Center downtown, 601 E. Kennedy – and demand that MPO remove TBX from the TIP. They need to also think about including the existing Envision Plan. There’s so many plans that the community has come out and enthusiastically participated in and wants to see advanced. Include that in as our way to move forward.
“You know, there just bottom-line has to be a moratorium on these right-of-way acquisitions. The city is losing tax money, the department and everything they’re doing: they say one thing, then they’re doing another action and that’s what it really comes down to. For us, it’s like when is the two gonna match; there’s what they say vs. what they do.
“So, again, we’re just encouraging every member of the community to do what they’ve done consistently for two years: join us, come out next Tuesday, use your public time at this hearing to let the MPO know you do not support your tax dollars being included in the TIP and continuing to fund a project that we’ve been told is on hold.”