Yes Tampa Bay Express (TBX): Key to future transportation mobility

Since early 2015, controversy over the Tampa Bay Express (TBX) has stirred around elements included in the draft Master Plan, from its costs to the actual size and stretch of the project. Some have made the argument that the idea of a toll itself is illegal. TBX was also listed in an anti-highway ‘national report’ released by a non-profit interest group, which ignored the actual project details to focus almost entirely on quotes from newspaper reports of the past year. Having worked in both the public and private sectors of planning over the past three decades, this comes as no surprise, as the one constant, whether the subject was roadways, land use, urbanism, or anything else, has been conflict.

It didn’t take long in my career to realize that in a majority of cases, conflicts over transportation projects are often rooted in misunderstandings over pieces of information taken out of context. To clarify these misunderstandings and shed light on its ties to a more balanced and multimodal future for the Tampa Bay region, we have been speaking publicly about TBX over the past two months to community associations, chambers of commerce, as well as in the media. Responses have been mostly positive, and it is encouraging to see and hear more individuals express their opinions. As I do in presentations, I will present the facts here to communicate why this project is so incredibly important.

TBX will be an effective “right-now” congestion mitigation strategy for converting the failing segments of I-275, I-75 and I-4 from facilities that break down whenever volume approaches capacity, to an efficiently operated system where speed and reliability of travel time are better maintained. Anyone who has attempted to use the interstate during peak travel periods is aware of this frustrating experience. 

In contrast to highway widening, which alone does not resolve congestion, TBX will provide the opportunity to replace the time-price of driving with an economic price; one that offers scarce road space during these peak periods for a user-fee, which is based on the current level of congestion. Such dynamic Toll pricing systems have been used effectively in Singapore, as well as Norway, France, Sweden and Great Britain. In the United States, they are referred to simply as Express lanes, and have also been successful, including the I-95 lanes in Miami. Research on the operations and impacts of the I-95 lanes over the past year have shown an increase in speed for the local lanes and express lanes in both directions. Additionally, transit usage has risen compared to before launch, as express bus traveling through the system is exempted from tolling.

This brings us to one of the greatest impacts TBX will have on the Tampa Bay region: the incorporation of a dedicated 44-foot median through all project areas to a regional premium transit technology, which is currently being studied by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART). Considering this, it is important to note that with express lanes, the efficiency and value of premium transit systems, such as express buses, are maximized, since they do not share the same traffic conditions as normal bus service. With the minimum speeds of 45 mph guaranteed in TBX lanes, the premium transit technology could result in greater transit use, which will assist in removing even more cars from the general use lanes. Specifically, express bus or bus rapid transit could remove 30 to 60 cars per transit vehicle. 

TBX is not solely aimed at combating congestion and accommodating premium transit, but will make some much needed infrastructural and safety improvements, as well. Out of the currently budgeted $3.3 billion for the project, there are four integrated sub-projects that provide additional benefits. These projects make up a significant portion of the top regional priority projects in the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) 2015 Master Plan.

Benefits of TBX

Howard Frankland Bridge: TBX will dedicate $415 million to rebuild the bridge -- the main connector between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties -- above and below the waterline, making it resistant to high tidal situations and strong enough to support either a light-rail system or bus rapid transit -- all while fortifying the region’s primary hurricane evacuation route.

Tampa Airport Interchanges: As an identified bottleneck in a statewide study, TBX will provide $557 million toward completion of improvements between Spruce Street, I-275 and Memorial Highway, including connecting ramps, barrier-separated eastbound SR 60 express lanes, and reconstruction of transitional elements that enhance safety.

Gateway Connector and 118th Avenue: The Gateway area experiences significant congestion during peak travel periods and is a critical roadway segment for emergency evacuations. TBX will provide $56 million to connect the planned 118th Avenue North eastbound express lane to the proposed I-275 northbound express lanes, providing access to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, as well as a southbound I-275 express lane to the planned westbound 118th Avenue North express lane.

I-4/I-275 (Downtown Tampa Interchange): TBX will completely rebuild the junction to relieve local and regional congestion and provide the median for premium transit. Express lanes are an integral part of the system and will help reduce traffic congestion not only on the Interstate, but on parallel local roads.

For all the benefits of TBX, there are some issues. 

In Tampa Heights and south of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, there are approximately 85 residential improved properties that are required to obtain the full project right-of-way. Currently, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) owns around 30 percent of the needed properties and is conducting a study to determine the exact number of historic properties that are needed. The properties that still need to be acquired would be provided full compensation under federal/state law, and owners would be relocated according to standards that ensure an equitable process. A recent example of how this process can result in positive outcomes is the recent purchase of the Tampa Presbyterian Village property. FDOT provided each household between $30,000 and $70,000 in relocation funds, which led to 6 percent of the residents using the money to become first-time home owners.

As the largest city in Central Florida, Tampa is home to the region’s largest airport (Tampa International), seaport (Port Tampa Bay) and university (University of South Florida with 48,000 students), two professional sports arenas (Raymond James Stadium and Amalie Arena) and growing business districts (Downtown and Westshore), all located within city limits. 

Tampa absorbs massive traffic from around the region, experiencing the fourth highest percent daytime population increase of any major metropolitan area, yet has one of the lowest totals of Interstate miles among regions of comparable size. It is imperative we have a road system that works, that can be maintained, and that also provides the median space for a future mass transportation system. 

The TBX project lays the foundation for a strategically connected system that will work to increase the mobility choices of drivers, improve urban air quality by reducing traffic congestion, and provide safety upgrades to our existing infrastructure, all with an integrated toll revenue system that will help cover the maintenance and operating costs. TBX is an opportunity for the future of our region that we can’t afford to miss as we move forward.

Ramond “Ray’’ Chiaramonte is Executive Director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA). He served as Executive Director of the Hillsborough County MPO from 2008 to 2012 and the joint Hillsborough County MPO and Planning Commission from 2012 to 2015. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees
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