The Tampa Bay Express (TBX) is a system of new lanes that will give drivers a choice of paying a toll in order to enjoy a better commute.
You’ve likely read media reports about the Florida Department of Transportation’s (FDOT) Tampa Bay Express Projects (“TBX”) comprising almost 3.5 billion dollars of interstate improvements. Most occur in Hillsborough County for internal benefits and enhanced connectivity with surrounding counties. It is much more than the new “express lanes” along I-275 and I-4 attracting most of the media attention. Tampa’s choke point interchanges at I-275/I-4 downtown and I-275/SR 60/Airport at Westshore would be significantly restructured along with better Pinellas access via a new Howard Frankland Bridge span and Gateway area improvements.
Yet, despite opposition claims, this is not just another road project at the expense of future transit options. The I-275/I-4 express lanes will be free for HART’s express bus ambitions connecting downtown Tampa west to the airport and Pinellas Gateway area, north to park n’ ride lots near Bearss Ave., or east to Plant City lots. Plus, a fixed-rail envelope is provided in the medians of I-4, I-275 between downtown Tampa and the Howard Frankland Bridge, and the bridge’s new span accommodates the rail option to Pinellas Gateway. These short and long term transit options under TBX make FDOT’s intermodal center sites in downtown Tampa and Westshore viable transit feeders for other local transit services. FDOT should also be recognized as the primary financial backer for Hillsborough’s overall “premium transit” study, including their lead on possible use of CSX rail corridors for commuter rail as they achieved around Orlando.
None of these billions of dollars comes from any new local taxes or fees as discussed in the unrelated Go Hillsborough effort. These are federal and state monies we already pay as gas taxes, and finally, it is our turn to get a large share as we’ve seen South Florida and Orlando obtain before us. These monies can’t be converted to local transit funding as opponents may wish. They come from earmarks for interstate and regional projects controlled by Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. What our local officials do control is whether we lose them. Port Tampa Bay’s letter of support concluded:
“The proposed Tampa Bay Express project will be a critical link to both the continued enhancement of the region’s transportation network and ability of Port Tampa Bay’s shareholders and customers to move cargo efficiently to market. . . . If the Tampa Bay Express project is not approved by the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), the $3.5 billion that Florida Department of Transportation planned to invest in the Tampa Bay area to alleviate traffic congestion along key stretches of I-4 and I-275 will be distributed to other transportation districts throughout the state.”
GTAR’s Governmental Affairs Committee and Board of Directors came to the same conclusions. So has most other real estate, business and economic development associations throughout Tampa Bay. That is not to say legitimate concerns have not been raised by abutting neighborhoods in Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights and Ybor City. The original construction of these interstates did disrupt those communities and recovery has been slow. It did not help that federal and state transportation policy focused more on minimizing expenses than mitigating impacts on their neighbors. Fortunately, that has changed favorably in recent years and FDOT is proposing many mitigation techniques to enhance existing and new lanes with aesthetic, noise, and safety improvements. They seek to foster connections between communities on opposite sides of these interstates, and making areas under overpass lanes amenities instead of unsafe eyesores. Regardless, much of what the opposing neighbors want (other than no TBX) lies within the purview of local officials; not the FDOT.
Calls for more local transit service, “walkability”, bike paths and road improvements in these communities are what Go Hillsborough is about, with Tampa’s officials primarily deciding what gets funded in these areas. Calls for more community planning in these neighborhoods is fine, but that doesn’t mean TBX’s local and regional benefits should be jeopardized waiting for such efforts. Consider the planned widening of these stretches of I-275 and I-4 has been on the books for over two decades! FDOT has been purchasing properties for these widenings for years. Yet, some want to portray this as a surprising new threat? All that has really changed is using tolled express lanes means these projects can be funded sooner rather than later, and coordinated together as a package instead of piecemeal over decades.
The additional lanes, whether tolled express lanes or not, are inevitable as Hillsborough County alone expects another 600,000 residents by 2035. That probably means another million or more when adding our abutting counties and their many Tampa commuters. Freight and tourist traffic will grow as well. Such growth pressures are undeniable and ignored at our peril.
This can’t be about more road improvements verses more transit services. We need more capacity on all fronts and embracing the regional movement aspects of TBX doesn’t mean local efforts for more transit and “complete streets” are then abandoned.
Our MPO officials should vote to keep the TBX projects moving as one piece of the larger transportation puzzle we’ve yet to solve for a better Tampa Bay. We need your help delivering that message to the MPO Board before or during their public hearing on this subject June 22nd, 6:00 pm, County Center 2nd Floor Auditorium, 601 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, Florida. I urge you to send an e-mail to the MPO Board asking they support the TBX projects via MPO@plancom.org. You can also learn more about TBX by visiting FDOT’s site at www.tampabayexpress.com. Your voice matters as part of GTAR’s “Voice For Real Estate”!