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Tuesday, Sep 18, 2018
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Tampa council still wary of planned expressway

TAMPA — The city council has no say on whether the state will move ahead with its divisive plan to add express toll lanes to sections of Interstate 275 through Tampa.

But that hasn’t stopped some city council members from looking for ways to delay or scuttle the $3.3 billion project known as the Tampa Bay Expressway or TBX — unpopular with many people living in adjacent neighborhoods like Tampa Heights and Ybor City.

The council’s latest plan is to hire a consultant for an independent look at how TBX will affect neighborhoods. Some council members also are calling for the Metropolitan Planning Organization — the region’s transportation planning board — to delay Florida Department of Transportation plans for spending $21.6 million to buy right of way in the project’s path.

The land acquisition should stop until a Tampa Heights neighborhood community plan has been completed, said Councilwoman Lisa Montelione, who serves on the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The community plan could mean properties are rezoned and their value changes, Montelione said. That would change how much compensation is paid to property owners through purchase or eminent domain.

“Before FDOT starts spending that money, we should put a little bit of a break on this, allow our planning process to move forward and find out what the real impact to those properties is,” she said.

The first phase of TBX would see I-275 widened from the Gateway area in Pinellas County over the Howard Frankland Bridge and the rebuilding of the State Road 60/I-275 interchange along with “malfunction junction,” where I-275 and I-4 converge.

Tampa Heights residents say it will destroy homes and businesses and reverse years of success in revitalizing the historic neighborhood just north of Tampa’s downtown. They have organized a campaign to fight the project.

This is not the city council’s first attempt at delaying the TBX.

The council wrote to the Federal Highway Administration in 2015 requesting that it withdraw money for the project until the concerns of neighbors are addressed. The council received a perfunctory reply encouraging it to work with FDOT to minimize and mitigate the impact of the project.

The money to hire a consultant would come from three community redevelopment areas that would be affected by the project – Tampa Heights, downtown and Ybor City. The money would have to be approved at a later Community Redevelopment Agency meeting.

The scope of the study was not discussed but it could include more detailed information on the negative effects on neighboring communities, ways to minimize the damage from widening I-275, and whether the state transportation department is taking steps to protect every historic building in the project’s footprint. The state agency has already spent $4.2 million relocating 63 historic homes over the past two decades.

But the council faces an uphill battle.

TBX has the support of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and leaders of the Port of Tampa and Tampa International Airport.

And a majority of Metropolitan Planning Organization board members last year voted to move TBX into its Transportation Improvement Program — a list of projects considered top priority for the region. The agency is scheduled to discuss the project again at a public meeting in June.

Sitting Thursday as the Community Redevelopment Agency, council members grilled Ed McKinney, interim planning and environmental administrator with the state Department of Transportation.

TBX does not yet have a construction start date but will eventually require the relocation of about 140 families and 33 businesses.

State officials said property owners will be reimbursed at market rate or better and are eligible for money to help families whose utility bills increase as a result of relocation. Closing and moving costs are also reimbursed.

Previous relocation efforts have enabled some families being to become homeowners, said Zenia Gallo, senior right of way agent for the state transportation department.

Montelione said the state agency has not given adequate notice to some families because it has written only to property owners.

Councilman Guido Maniscalco was the only MPO board member to vote against TBX last year.

Tampa’s future depends on the development of mass-transit not more roads, Maniscalco said. TBX is reopening old wounds from the days when the interstate was first built through the heart of Tampa neighborhoods so suburban commuters could get to work, he said.

“Interstates are not the answer; TBX is not the answer,” he said. “We’re delaying progress by building more highways.”

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