Pasco County commuters understand the frustration of gridlock, as they head to and from work every day.
Florida Department of Transportation officials believe the proposed construction of a project known as the Tampa Bay Express could make life easier for motorists traveling from St. Petersburg in Pinellas County to Wesley Chapel in Pasco County.
Nearly 50 miles of new toll lanes would be built adjacent to existing non-toll lanes along Interstate 275 and Interstate 4, in a project that state highway officials have pegged at initial costs of $3 billion, but said it could get as high as $6 billion.
If the project is approved, construction would be five or more years away.
The toll fees would vary depending on traffic volume — with more expensive tolls applying at rush hour. SunPass would be the only accepted method of payment. The system will not allow billing by license plate.
The potential is there, too, for a rapid bus transit service that would operate within the toll lane system, but not pay tolls. A 44-foot “multimodal envelope” is included in the design. Park and ride stations would be built. including one in Wesley Chapel.
The project is stirring an intense struggle between those who support the TBX as a regional approach to easing traffic congestion and those who characterize the TBX as a boondoggle that will destroy historic Tampa neighborhoods, and do little for mass transit.
A coalition, including the Tampa Bay Partnership, now has The Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce as a partner. The chamber’s board of directors approved a resolution on April 21 in support of TBX “as an essential foundation to pursue a variety of forward-thinking transit options” in the Tampa Bay area.
The day before the chamber’s vote, state transportation officials made a presentation to about 20 people who attended a public meeting on the TBX, sponsored by the chamber.
Kirk Bogen, the transportation department’s environmental manager engineer, said the Wesley Chapel presentation was the first one in the “outskirts” of the TBX project area.
“We’re putting out feelers, accepting invitations,” he said.
Hope Allen, president of the Wesley Chapel chamber, said the coalition’s goal is to inform people of what’s going on and “to make sure it’s the right fit for our commuters.”
The TBX and gridlock relief are key to the area’s future development, she said. Without the project, she added, “Wesley Chapel doesn’t look quite as appealing. We’re here to help you get this moving along.”
The toll express lanes also have strong support from Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
But, the project faces resistance within Tampa’s historic neighborhoods, including Tampa Heights, Ybor City and Seminole Heights. Community activists and a newly formed Sunshine Citizens coalition are working hard to block the TBX.
They have held a series of protest marches through neighborhoods that could lose about 100 businesses and homes to the road project. Among area businesses that could be torn down are Café Hey, the Oceanic Market and La Segunda Central Bakery, which has operated in Ybor City for more than 100 years. A public housing complex, Mobley Park apartments, also could be torn down.
Many in the neighborhoods remember past urban renewal projects that divided and devastated communities.
A crucial vote on the matter will take place on June 22 at 6 p.m., at the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization in the Hillsborough County Commission Chamber, at 601 E. Kennedy Blvd., in Tampa.
Members of that board approved the project in 2015 as part of their Transportation Improvement Plan, but opponents are hoping to sway some members to vote against it now.
There is critical need for the project and for toll revenues that can “help maintain the roads into the future,” Bogen said. Otherwise, he said, “Your system basically will continue to fail.”
On any day during rush hour, Pasco residents chug south on I-275 at speeds well under highway limits.
“I spend so much time stuck on freeways or Bearss Avenue or downtown, I don’t know where the time goes,” said Tom Ryan.
Ryan is economic development manager for the Pasco Economic Development Council, but said he was speaking as a private citizen.
Greg Vinas, B2B sales manager in Wesley Chapel, said he also would like to see light rail as an option, but the TBX is needed to reduce congestion and create connections.
“It will make the community that much smaller,” he said.
With improved transportation, one trend he hopes to see is reverse commuting with Tampa area residents coming to Pasco for jobs, as the area attracts new businesses.
“I know people now (from Tampa) who won’t come up here,” Vinas said.
Published April 27, 2016