Buckhorn: TBX not perfect, but necessary

- After eight hours of public comment and debate, Hillsborough County leaders voted 12-4 early Thursday morning to move forward with the $6-billion TBX project.

Critics outnumbered supporters of the plan nearly two-to-one at Wednesday night's Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn admits the project isn't perfect, but is badly needed.

"We had to get this done. There is a little pain, I get that. There's a lot of disruption as well, but for the long-term health of this community and developing our transportation system, it has to stay on that list," Buckhorn said Thursday.

Without MPO's approval, the project was at risk of losing billions in state and federal funding, which would have been redistributed to other parts of the state.

The eight-phase plan now has the green light to begin in 2017, when new toll lanes will be added to the Gateway Express in Pinellas County. The $3.3 billion starter project plan includes new express toll lanes on 275 and I-4, a Howard Frankland Bridge replacement, interchange fixes in downtown Tampa and around Tampa International Airport and the Gateway project

The expansion of existing highways will mean an estimated 100 homes and 30 businesses will need to be razed in order to make way for the project. Critics of the plan say poorer communities will end up bearing the brunt of it.

"This is going to impact lower income people and make the richer rich," said Historic Seminole Heights neighbor Rosemary Orlando.

Numerous homes and businesses in Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights and Ybor City - where FDOT has already announced certain properties will either be purchased or taken by eminent domain in order to complete the project - display their objections to the project with prominently-placed signs. Critics say the very neighborhoods that will have to tear down homes and businesses, won't even have access to the new toll lanes.

"I don't feel like it's really reflecting the community at all, the community that's going to be torn apart by it," said Orlando. "This structure is going to take their homes away and it's not really something that they have a large voice in. It's the low-income. It's the people in housing and it's so unfair."

A Tampa Bay Times report found 80-percent of people living in homes marked for demolition identify as either black or Latino. FDOT officials, however, say nothing is set in stone.

"There are concessions that we can make. We can mitigate this project and that's the whole reason why we're going out into the communities. Our big message is: we are listening to the community. We're not just going to blow through an interstate project," said FDOT spokesperson Kris Carson.

Plans for light rail or other transportation alternatives are not off the table, but will have to wait. A two-year premium transit study will begin this year to look into such options, which would still be several years, and several billion dollars more, away.

FDOT says it will continue to hold community meetings in affected neighborhoods to try and ease the inconvenience of the project. Carson says FDOT will do its best to work with neighbors with specific concerns about saving their homes.

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