If you were to go purely by the public opinion that was expressed at the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Organization‘s meeting last month, the controversial Tampa Bay Express (TBX) project is a political loser, at least among members of the Seminole Heights/Tampa Heights communities.
The multibillion-dollar proposal, backed by the Florida Department of Transportation, would add toll lanes along Interstate 275 from north St. Petersburg to south of Bearss Avenue in Hillsborough County.
Neighborhood activists say the highway construction alone will destroy local businesses and send money out of Hillsborough to outlying areas like Pasco and Hernando counties.
But the political establishment in Hillsborough County strongly supports the plan, as was evident by the MPO’s 13-1 vote on August 4. Members from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, the Tampa Bay Partnership and the Tampa Innovation Alliance all sang the project’s praises at the MPO meeting.
“I think we’re so far behind that we have to start somewhere,” says Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano, who sits on the MPO’s board and voted to support the TBX plan.
Lozano says the TBX is by no means “a silver bullet,” but says simply that, “We’ve got to start somewhere. And we’ve got a project that’s worth billions of dollars that people are willing to do that’s gonna have some benefit, so let’s do it.”
Hillsborough County’s transportation problems have been discussed and debated for years, with hopes now pending on a potential transportation referendum that would concentrate heavily on constructing and rebuilding roads, with less devoted to transit (though the city of Tampa could choose to use its share of the revenues strictly for transit projects). Lopano says Hillsborough County is “so far behind the power curve at this point” in comparison to other major communities that he says all types of transit projects — like Bus Rapid Transit and trolley service — are all needed to enhance moving people around the region. “I don’t know what the future is, but we gotta get moving right now,” he says.
Go Hillsborough, the name of the outreach effort being funded by the County (along with transportation consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff), is conducting dozens of meetings this month to get further input from the community on what should be included in that potential tax, along with the critical decision about whether it should be a half-cent as originally proposed, or kicked up to a full cent, which obviously would bring in double the revenue for transportation, but could be a harder sell for the county.
Lopano didn’t exactly answer the question about how much he thinks the tax should be.
“Well, I think we’ve got to do it right. If you’re going to go after something, do it right, and I hope you agree that’s what we’ve done here. And that’s what George Bean did 43 years ago. First guy to have a people mover system at an airport. He did it right, and we as a community have to get together and do it right.”