A hard-fought, often passionate battle over Tampa Bay’s transportation future ended with a vote in favor of building the Tampa Bay Express.
The project calls for 90 miles of new toll lanes on Interstate 275 from St. Petersburg to Wesley Chapel, along Interstate 4 to Plant City, and south on Interstate 75 to Manatee County.
The project is seen by many in Pasco County as key to propelling economic growth and easing traffic congestion.
“We’re happy it passed,” said Hope Allen, executive director of The Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce. “Common sense prevailed in that it will be moving forward. Further discussion will happen and that’s good.”
Advocates for and against packed the June 22 public hearing of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization. More than 160 people signed up for public comment during an 8-hour speaking marathon that lasted until almost 2:30 a.m. Most were from Tampa, but others came from St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Plant City and Pasco.
The Hillsborough MPO voted 12-4 to put the expressway project, known as TBX, as a priority on its five-year transportation plan. The plan must be submitted to the Florida Department of Transportation by July 15 for state and federal review.
Construction on phase one is slated for 2021 and would re-design the I-275 interchange into downtown Tampa.
Work on a new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge, between Tampa and St. Petersburg, however, is planned for 2017.
TBX will create new toll lanes adjacent to existing non-toll lanes at an initial cost of more than $3 billion, and potentially as much as $6 billion.
Toll fees would vary depending on traffic volume, with more expensive tolls applying at rush hour. No toll rates have been announced, but fees on existing toll systems, including on Interstate 95 in Miami, suggest they could be as high as $2 a mile.
A rapid bus transit service potentially could use the toll lane, but not pay tolls.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, the Wesley Chapel chamber joined with other area chambers and organizations in Pasco and the region, to publicly support and campaign for a favorable vote on TBX.
Four of Pasco County’s commissioners also signed a letter of support. Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano was the lone dissenter.
He objected to toll lanes, saying they would be unfair to people who can’t afford expensive toll fees.
Other options, including conversion of CSX rail lines for public transit, should be studied, Mariano said.
“To me, you are wasting capacity for a rich few,” he said. “There should be a big regional discussion on what is going on in the whole area.”
Opponents of TBX campaigned to block the project as a boondoggle that would benefit wealthy motorists, harm minority communities, lower air quality and crush ongoing revitalization of neighborhoods that suffered during highway widening projects in the 1960s and 1970s.
The project is expected to wipe out as many as 100 businesses and residences in historic neighborhoods of Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights and V.M. Ybor.
“This project is morally flawed on several levels,” said Beverly Ward, principal of BGW Associates, a company that studies effects of public policy decisions on communities.
But, supporters said TBX should be viewed as a regional project that would significantly decrease commute times, promote new development, and encourage more customers to visit existing businesses outside their neighborhoods.
“It’s going to hopefully expedite commuting up to us,” said Greg Lenners, general manager of The Shops at Wiregrass. “We’re still seen as a more rural area. It will be a plus.”
More than half of Pasco’s workers commute to jobs outside of the county, sometimes sitting for two hours in stalled traffic on interstates.
Others in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Plant City said they also want relief from congestion to spend more time with family, friends and children.
“This project will benefit everyone,” said Ken Roberts, an Apollo Beach resident and member of Citizens Organized for Sound Transportation. “We need to realize we are in this all together.”
Published June 29, 2016