No Tampa Bay Express (TBX): A road back in time

My perspective is that of a Tampa native born in Ybor City (1955) and raised in Tampa Heights. I’m old enough to remember the trauma caused by interstate construction in the 1960s. All along its path, beautiful homes and buildings were demolished. Neighborhood connections were severed. People were displaced. Previously bustling communities were blighted. Whole neighborhoods and parts of Tampa’s history were lost.

Fast forward 45 years and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) now proposes to repeat this destructive pattern in an attempt to reduce interstate traffic congestion through Tampa from Hillsborough County west into Pinellas County and east into Polk County. 

TBX involves widening of the interstate footprint through Tampa neighborhoods Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights, Downtown and Ybor City; complete redesign of “Malfunction Junction” in downtown Tampa; the addition of managed toll lanes (from Bearss Avenue through downtown, connecting the Westshore area to Clearwater-St. Pete in Pinellas County and the Polk Parkway near Lakeland). All at a cost estimated between $3 billion and $9 billion. 

There are many reasons to oppose TBX. Some are very technical and deal with such issues as outdated traffic volume assumptions, funding sources, flawed road design and the dangers of “design/build” projects. I’m not an engineer or accountant and don’t need to be in order to identify some of the plan’s many failures and the associated collateral damage. 

Arguments against TBX

1. It won’t work. Google the term “induced demand” and you will learn the concept (for road space) essentially means that new, or widened, highways will entice more drivers onto the roads, negating any congestion-reducing benefits of the new road. Ironically, even FDOT admits TBX will not solve interstate congestion. The fail is sufficiently epic to have merited TBX recognition as one of the 12 Worst “Boondoggles” in the country by U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group).

2. The pool of funds exhausted by TBX will not be available for development of much needed and wanted multi-modal transit options. Citizens by the thousands have expressed their preference for light rail, commuter rail, enhanced bus service, safe street redesign, complete streets, walkability, bicycle infrastructure, greenways, better lighting, improved sidewalks, etc. A move away from the car centric policies of the past is needed to bring Tampa into the 21st Century. See InVision Tampa and Imagine Hillsborough 2040.

3. Speaking of the 21st Century, the plan informing TBX was penned and sealed in the 1990s. It was “shelf ready” when the call for a solution came in 2013/2014, and fast-tracked by FDOT from that point forward. Why the rush? And why would anyone think a plan published in an ancient document would have any relevance to today’s Tampa?

4.  TBX has nothing to do with driver choice and everything to do with behavior management. Managed toll lanes are the heart of TBX. Toll rates will shift up or down with demand. At peak demand, toll rates will climb to $2 a mile. At other times of the day, when congestion is not an issue and free lanes are moving easily, the toll rate would drop significantly (say $.50 a mile).

During peak traffic periods there will be a high price to pay, in time or money or both, for using the interstate system. You’ll either be stuck in “free lane” traffic, as you are now, or paying through the nose to use the toll lanes. Eventually, the cost in time or money will be sufficiently high that some percentage of users will make alternative travel arrangements or avoid rush hour travel all together. That’s exactly the point. FDOT wants fewer people to use the interstate at peak hours and managed toll lanes are a way to “discourage” that use.

A 5 percent reduction in cars during rush hour will have a significant, positive impact on traffic flow. See congestion pricing as outlined by the Federal Highway Administration. FDOT seeks to make rush hour travel costly enough to cause some drivers to take alternate routes (diverting traffic to surface streets), travel at other times, take the bus or telecommute. Unfortunately, under the current state of affairs, most of those committed to rush hour travel will have few meaningful transit (meaning something other than a car) options to facilitate their trips. 

Suggestion: Rather than spend billions of dollars to manipulate drivers off the interstate, invest in 21st Century multi-modal transit. We’ll go voluntarily. See Congestion Pricing, A Primer.

5. TBX will destroy or severely damage some of Tampa’s most historically significant neighborhoods. Ybor City, Tampa Heights, Downtown, West Tampa and Seminole Heights are ground zero. An estimated 130 structures (business and residential) are earmarked for destruction, relocation or adverse impact. In addition, the cloud of this project will hang over these neighborhoods for the next 10 plus years. They will either be waiting for the first shovel to turn or living through the noise, dust, disruption and destruction secondary to construction. TBX won’t solve traffic congestion but it will, most certainly, turn back the hands of time on these communities and reverse the hard won gains they have achieved over five decades.

6. TBX will encourage more urban sprawl. FDOT promises faster commutes to and through Tampa. It’s unclear when this relief will come. Estimates range between 5 and 10 years. That’s a long time to wait for implementation that will fail and a plan outdated before the first shovel of dirt is turned. Dismal prospects notwithstanding, with TBX funded and on track for execution, our region’s car centric focus will continue. Developers will continue to prospect in far flung areas and residents will continue to migrate away from the city center in favor of  lower suburban housing prices over time and money spent in commuting. 

7. A cruel irony of TBX is that it will be built on the backs of Tampa’s historic neighborhoods but those neighborhoods will receive absolutely no benefit. What benefit, if any, there may be will accrue to those working commuters, tourists, business and discretionary travelers passing through the impacted neighborhoods to points north, south, east and west. 

With very limited access points, a resident of these communities would have to travel into Downtown, north to Bearss or out to the Westshore district to access the toll lanes. Those traveling on the toll lanes would have no direct exit points to access Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights or Ybor City. It's a lose-lose proposition for these now bustling neighborhoods and their business sectors.  If the heart of the city is losing, Tampa is losing.

8. If built, TBX will succeed in attracting more traffic and congestion. With that, we will see an increase in air, water and noise pollution.

9. Lost in the fog of TBX is any discussion of InVision Tampa and Imagine Hillsborough 2040, Part 1 and Part 2.

10. In conclusion: FDOT has tried to convince Tampa residents (especially those living in the impacted historic communities) to buy what they’re selling in the TBX plan. That sale will never close. Short of putting a gun to one’s head, it’s impossible to sell that for which there is neither a need nor want. If allowed to proceed, TBX will literally be built over and through Tampa’s history with no corresponding benefit. The benefit, if any there be, will be largely enjoyed by those contributing to our urban sprawl, a major factor aggravating our traffic congestion problems.

We are caught in a vicious, car centric cycle. Absent transit alternatives, more people will use more cars to create more traffic, more pollution and more congestion. There is no road wide enough, nor toll high enough, to change that fact. 

TBX is a road back in time. We won’t find solutions there. Tampa’s citizens have risen up against TBX. It’s now long past time for our representatives to follow.

Additional source material
Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and the Frontier Group -- Quoting from the news release: “A new study by the United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) Education Fund and Frontier Group identifies 12 of the most wasteful highway projects across the country.

The study shows how some of these projects are outright boondoggles. Some of the egregious examples of wasteful projects discussed in the report include: Tampa Bay Express Lanes, Florida, $3.3 billion -- State officials admit that a decades-old plan to construct toll lanes would not solve the region’s problems with congestion, while displacing critical community job-training and recreational facilities.”

Gabe Klein -- a former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation and director of District DOT in Washington, D.C., told Urban Land Institute Tampa Bay that the proposal is the "worst project" he's seen in his years of traveling the country.”

Steve Otto -- a local newspaper columnist opines: “The state’s TBX plan will be years of construction, and we will once again retool “malfunction junction” … Technology is changing every day … Wouldn’t it be great if we could be a part of these new technologies? Instead of suffering through another decade of construction … we should put creative minds to work on making the region a transportation model for the country. With $9 billion to get started, we ought to get something besides more lanes of traffic” Read Otto's column.

Daniel Ruth -- a local newspaper columnist opines: “A city's identity is the sum of the character of its neighborhoods. As the TBX project moves forward (or in a sense, backward) it would displace large portions of historic Seminole and Tampa Heights along I-275. These are communities that just a few short years ago were considered low-rent dumps. Today they are teeming with remodeled homes, quaint shops and some of the city's trendier eateries. The residents of the heights neighborhoods invested in their communities. They took risks. They believed in the future. And now the Florida Department of Transportation wants to pave over many of those dreams and much of the region's history. And for what? The residents and business owners of the neighborhoods most immediately impacted by TBX have every right to be circumspect and a little peeved. And their concerns -- and fears -- will not easily be paved over.” Read Ruth's column.

Tampa Bay Times editorial opinion -- “Under Gov. Rick Scott, the state continues to push ahead with pork-barrel road projects that will only encourage residents, commuters and developers to move deeper into rural areas, worsening the impacts of sprawl and creating ever more expensive demands for public services. This is a gross failure in planning that hurts taxpayers, the natural environment, the economy and Florida's quality of life.” Read the Times editorial.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox -- “Anthony Foxx … is pushing cities to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety … he wants to tear down -- or at least improve -- transportation infrastructure that isolates communities. … Several U.S. cities … have already either torn down above-ground stretches of highways or are studying that possibility.”

Sunshine Citizens -- “Sunshine Citizens remains committed to petitioning all relevant government officials to remove the current iteration of Tampa Bay Express- both starter project and master plan -- from the Transportation Improvement Plan and Long Range Transportation Plan. Tampa Bay Express destroys irreplaceable community assets, induces more congestion with a sole focus on single occupancy vehicle traffic, and only offers variable rate toll lanes which cost up to $2 per mile. TBX is fundamentally wrong for this region and will not provide long-term economic growth and prosperity.” Read the complete statement.

Ricardo "Rick'' Fernandez, a lawyer who recruits and coaches attorneys making career transitions, serves as President of the Tampa Heights Civic Association. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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