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Thursday, May 25, 2017
Transportation

Here’s how Tampa Bay’s $6B highway expansion will burden minorities

Tampa Bay Express calls for widening the region’s highways to create 90 miles of toll lanes that promise a faster ride.

Top regional officials are urging the public to get behind TBX, calling the project a boon to business owners, their employees, tourists and commuters.

But the $6 billion project, much like the first highways built half a century ago, puts a disproportionate burden on minority and low-income residents whose homes are in its path.

Q&A: Eight questions answered about the Tampa Bay Express interstate project

Nearly 80 percent of the registered voters living at properties that Florida’s Department of Transportation plans to demolish are black and Latino, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis.

In a four-mile stretch near Tampa’s downtown, at least 340 minority residents will be displaced.

TBX poses other economic and logistical challenges for those living in its shadow.

♦ Most won’t have access to the speedy express lanes, which skip over the majority of Central Tampa and the 20,000 people who live there.

♦ Tolls could rise up to $2 for a single mile during rush hour, according to an estimate in FDOT’s master plan. At that rate, it would cost $15 to travel 7½ miles from Bearss Avenue to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a $30 commute far out of reach for many who live there.

♦ TBX further neglects Tampa Heights, Ybor and Seminole Heights, which experts already claim is one of the worst places in America for mass transit, by not providing anything tangible in better rail or bus service.

Even among some of its champions, the project is a mixed bag that doesn’t address the region’s most pressing transportation issues. “It’s better than nothing” is essentially the rallying cry for supporters as the project heads for a key vote later this month.

“TBX is not the entire solution, but it’s part of the solution,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. “It’s disruptive, I get it, but I don’t know any other way.”

♦ THE MAP

TBX is the costliest public works project in Tampa Bay history. If built in its entirety, toll lanes will stretch from Pinellas Park across to Polk County, north toward Pasco County and south toward Manatee County.

It will add at least one toll lane in each direction next to existing free lanes of traffic. To make room for it, FDOT needs to buy land.

State officials won’t say whose land it needs just yet, but did provide a map of properties they plan to acquire along a four-mile stretch, near the downtown Tampa interchange of Interstates 275 and 4.

But this has led to more confusion.

For one thing, the map doesn’t match a list of properties shown to local government officials. Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner received a list of parcel numbers showing about 400 homes, businesses and vacant land. The official map has about 25 fewer properties. FDOT officials said the map is constantly changing.

Further complicating matters is that many people had no idea a map existed — or that their home was on it. FDOT officials would not provide names of people it has contacted so far, saying it is not a public record. Debbie Hunt, from FDOT’s district office, said the state doesn’t want to unnerve people by telling them about the plans too early.

“We didn’t even know there was a list,” said Carolyn Brigham, who lives with her husband, Gregory, on Marguerite Street. “No one has told us anything.”

Clara Ray, 72, sat with her crossword puzzle on her porch at Mobley Park, a low-income apartment complex, when she was told by the Times that state plans showed her home would be demolished.

“Really?” Ray said. “That’s news to me.”

♦ THE PROCESS

TBX is set to begin construction next year if a majority of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization votes for it June 22. Some pieces of the massive project have not been funded yet, particularly the overhaul to the downtown interchange. But the early stages of land acquisition are under way.

If property owners don’t want to sell, the state could take the land by going to court, a process called “eminent domain.”

Most of the time, FDOT avoids legal action.

State data of the last five years show that transportation officials used eminent domain only about a quarter of the time they needed to acquire land. More often, the agency pays a premium — almost 25 percent more than the property’s appraised value — and then state law requires FDOT to pay even more to help residents find a decent place to live.

During the last five years, FDOT data show it paid an average of $21,000 in relocation fees. That includes things like moving expenses, rent assistance and even down payments to help families who rented buy a home.

Residents say it is difficult to put a dollar amount on relocation, especially for those who lived in their homes for decades. Many told the Times that TBX is a tough sell because they see it as a benefit not for their community but for those passing through.

“These lanes aren’t meant for us,” said Seminole Heights resident Andy Harris. “They’re taking our homes and building roads meant for rich commuters who live in the suburbs.”

FDOT officials said TBX has been planned since a 1996 interstate study recommended it. But there is a catch: The old plan never mentioned building toll roads.

Many more studies have recommended transit projects like rail or more buses that would benefit those minority neighborhoods that will be disrupted by TBX. And those transit projects have been scrapped. In 1995, for instance, Hillsborough’s long-range plan proposed an extensive rail system by 2015 that would include 26 stops.

Business owners say TBX is worth it because it will improve regional commerce.

“We know we need the extra capacity,” said Ann Kulig, executive director of the Westshore Alliance, a nonprofit organization of area businesses. “This is the opportunity for us to build the project as a whole rather than in dribs and drabs as money becomes available. People are excited about it, especially those who have to drive a lot.”

♦ THE PLAN

TBX won’t be for everyone.

At the moment, it appears that there won’t be an access point to the express lanes anywhere along a three-mile stretch between downtown Tampa and north of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Details about other access points remain vague. Potential entries and exits are listed only as “Fowler/Busch” and “North of MLK.”

FDOT is also unclear about how much it will cost to drive the express lanes.

The plan calls for “variable rates” that go up and down depending on the volume of traffic. Transportation officials want to keep the vehicles moving at 45 mph. The toll needs to be high enough to discourage too many people from using the lanes. The master plan says the range could be anywhere from 15 cents to $2 per mile. Similar projects provide clues about possible tolls.

In Dallas, new express lanes average $7 for a 13-mile span during rush hour.

In Miami, the toll for Interstate 95 Express lanes tops out at $10.50.

In Virginia, express lanes can cost $7 for a single mile.

If those examples are close to what commuters can expect in Tampa Bay, many motorists wouldn’t be able to afford express lanes regularly.

That’s by design.

“You have to be willing to let the tolls go high enough so they act as a genuine disincentive for motorists who otherwise would be crowding into those lanes,” said Jeff Brown, a professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University.

State officials downplay the cost, saying the lanes weren’t meant to be used for everyday commutes but more for special circumstances, such as drivers running late to the airport or parents hustling to pick up children at day care.

“It gives these people a choice,” said Debbie Hunt, director of transportation development for FDOT’s Tampa district.

But business officials say commuting is a key reason why TBX is so important for the bay area.

“The express routes are clearly created to connect business centers from one to another so you could have higher levels of density,” said Rick Homans of the Tampa Bay Partnership.

Used every day, the lanes separate those who can pay and those who can’t.

In parts of Lutz and Avila, the median household income is about $90,000. At their peak, tolls could cost a driver $15 to drive to a job downtown, or $7,800 a year. That is about 9 percent of their annual pay.

But if someone from Ybor, where the median income is $26,000, used the express lanes just as often, it would account for almost 30 percent of their wages.

“You really should be thinking about how you could create a more fair system that’s open and eligible to all individuals,” said Jonathan Peters, a toll roads expert and finance professor at the College of Staten Island in New York. “(Toll lanes) say those who can pay can use it. It says someone who is a rich corporate lawyer is more important than someone going to and from a service job as a janitor.”

♦ THE HISTORY

To understand the neighborhoods’ mistrust over TBX, consider the history of interstate expansion. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Federal Aid Highway Act reshaped the country’s transportation system by connecting roadways throughout the United States.

Many of these new highways cut through poor black communities and led to the displacement of 475,000 people over two decades, Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a speech earlier this year.

In Miami, the interstate cut right through Overtown. In Charlotte, N.C., soaring overpasses divided a neighborhood called Brooklyn. In Tampa, the interstate tore through places like Ybor City, Tampa Heights and “the Scrub.”

The Scrub was one of Tampa’s first black settlements and home to people in what is now Tampa Heights. The Central Avenue Black Business district was two blocks with about 100 shops and offices. All across the country, historians and researchers say, American planners chose inner cities to lay down roots of the current interstate system.

“Some people called it ‘slum curing,’” Beverly Ward, a local civic researcher, said at a recent community meeting.

The family of Felix and Joanne Lopez owned a grocery store in 1956. The couple bought their first home nearby on Central Avenue. Then I-275 was announced and the state took their store in 1961 while the highway went up practically in their backyard.

The construction was a tough blow, one that razed their business and divided their neighborhood. But Felix said there was also a sense of excitement for the possibilities it could bring and the connections it could make.

“Me, personally, I was happy,” Felix said. “It was good. It was convenient. It was compact. But then they started expanding and expanding and expanding. It’s a monster now.”

Over time, they grew accustomed to the mammoth roadway in their backyard as they built memories with their family over more than five decades.

“We’ve raised the children and some of the grandchildren,” Joanne said. “We looked at other houses but always came back. This isn’t just a house, it’s our home.”

Yet again, however, the Lopez family is at the mercy of FDOT.

Plans for TBX at first showed that the couple’s home on Central Avenue will be demolished.

Their daughter, Julie Harris, has attended a dozen meetings, protests and community events to challenge FDOT.

“If you’re in the path of their plan, how do you plan for your own future?” Harris said.

At 90 years old, Felix wants to remain in the home where he built his life.

“Even if they put a wall next door or a retention pond in our backyard, we would stay,” Felix said. “All I want is to die in my home.”

Hunt, of FDOT, recently told the Times that the agency decided not to buy the Lopez home after all. But the family doesn’t believe her. The state twice last year told a Lopez neighbor in writing that it had no plans to acquire any land north of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. But a recent FDOT map continued to show the Lopez home as one that would be bought.

“There’s been a lot of issues with transparency from FDOT,” said Beckner, the county commissioner. “It’s been very troubling for me.”

Others in the path of TBX are more vulnerable.

Take Mobley Park apartments.

Tucked behind I-275 as the highway hooks north and joins with I-4 are low-income apartments built more than a decade ago.

The paint looks new. The gates work. There is a pool and a playground.

Police get half the calls for service at Mobley Park than other public housing projects in the city.

In a few years, though, the state will come through and tear it down.

Transportation officials will not say how many units it will acquire, but this is little consolation to those who live there.

“I heard from some of the neighbors talking about it,” said James Akes. “But nothing official.”

Akes is 64, blind and lives alone. He has been in the same apartment, nearest the highway, for eight years. His diploma from a local church is tacked on the wall near his kitchen.

Two days a week, he walks to a nursing home four blocks away.

He ministers to the elderly.

“How do I get there when they force me out?” he asked.

♦ THE RESPONSE

The Federal Highway Administration’s office of civil rights opened a preliminary investigation in April after Matthew Suarez, a designer for a local construction firm, filed a complaint.

A member of Sunshine Citizens, the group that opposes TBX, Suarez told federal officials that the express lanes would benefit affluent commuters, tourists and businesses at the expense of minorities.

The federal government has opened similar investigations during President Barack Obama’s presidency. An investigation in Wisconsin found that the state discriminated against minorities by refusing to include transit improvements in a $1.7 billion reconstruction of its highways, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Officials are still investigating whether Alabama similarly violated civil rights laws by cutting back on the number of motor vehicle registration offices in predominantly black communities.

If Florida is found in violation, TBX could be stopped.

Carolyn Brigham, 62, was angry when she first heard of the state’s plan to buy her home. She’s not angry anymore. Not because she agrees with the project, but because she doesn’t know how she’ll recover if she lets her emotions enter the equation.

Her family was already devastated once before when the interstate first came through. They took her grandmother’s home, ousting their family and tearing down her school in the process. Now the state is coming for her home, too.

“They’ve been doing this for decades because the property is so cheap and we have no representation,” Brigham said. “They’ll take our homes, they’ll put in a retention pond and then they’ll build what they want.”

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com and Anthony Cormier at acormier@tampabay.com.

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