Tampa Bay Express gaining favor in Pasco

A project to build express toll lanes on interstate highways, known as the Tampa Bay Express, has picked up an endorsement from the Pasco County Commission.

Commissioners voted 4-1 on May 10 to send a letter to the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization urging a favorable vote on the project.

The planning organization is scheduled for a June 22 vote on a project that has gained wide support in Pasco as a solution to commuter gridlock.

Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano voted no. He cited concerns about the increasing reliance on toll roads to generate revenues. He did approve of the potential for rapid bus service included in TBX.

“All the toll roads in the world don’t necessarily help your traffic,” he said.

The Hillsborough MPO’s decision will determine if the project goes forward as a transportation priority.

State highway officials peg the initial construction costs at about $3.3 billion. Some state estimates put the costs at as much as $6 billion.

“This is very, very important for the residents of Pasco County,” said Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore. “We think about quality of life, especially for residents who commute back and forth to Hillsborough County and Pinellas County on a daily basis.”

For some, commuting times can be more than two hours a day, Moore said. “If we save 30 to 45 minutes for them, just think about the increased quality of life, the time they will spend with family and friends, not on the road.”

In recent weeks, the Pasco Economic Development Council and The Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce also have come out in favor of the TBX.

The Pasco MPO added its voice to the chorus on May 12 by approving a resolution in favor of TBX.

Outside of Pasco, the TBX has been a divisive issue for months.

Some Tampa city leaders, including Mayor Bob Buckhorn, are strongly in favor. But, community activists in Tampa’s historic neighborhoods of V.M. Ybor, Ybor City, Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights strenuously object.

They say the added express lanes will slice through their streets, wiping out more than 100 businesses and residences.

Opponents have held protest marches and packed public meetings. Yard signs opposing TBX are a common sight.

The Sunshine Citizens is pushing against the project.

Most recently, the civil rights office of the Federal Highway Administration agreed to a preliminary investigation of TBX, based on a complaint that the toll system benefits wealthy commuters and motorists, while harming minorities who live in the affected neighborhoods.

If approved, nearly 50 miles of new toll lanes would be built adjacent to existing non-toll lanes along Interstate 275, Interstate 75 and Interstate 4. The toll lanes would stretch from St. Petersburg to Wesley Chapel, but also along Interstate 4 to Plant City and southward along Interstate 75 toward Manatee County.

Toll fees would vary depending on traffic volume, with most expensive costs likely at rush hours.

A new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge, between Tampa and St. Petersburg, also is part of the overall highway project.

And, the express lanes would open up to rapid bus service.

“I can’t emphasize how important this project is as a cornerstone of the master plan for the seven county region,” said Ramond Chiaramonte, chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (TBARTA). “I think we’re at a critical juncture. This is something that can transform this region within a decade from where we are now to a functioning transit system where we have express transit buses beginning to connect our suburban areas.”

The project could add about 90,000 temporary jobs during construction, said Richard Gehring, Pasco’s strategic policy administrator. While Tampa Bay is one of the largest job generators in the state, he said, “One of the biggest constraints on Tampa Bay is the transportation system.”

Work is underway to the north on about $400 million in highway projects, such as the State Road 52 interchange redesign at I-75, and TBX is a critical complement in efforts to reduce regional traffic congestion, Gehring said.

About 52 percent of Pasco residents commute outside the county daily, with about 66 percent of those motorists heading to jobs in Hillsborough, said James Edwards, director of Pasco County’s MPO.

“This is the first step to say we’re going to give Pasco commuters a choice,” he said.

Plus, Edwards said, “We look forward to reverse trips from Tampa.”

Published May 18, 2016

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