'Tampa Bay Next' transportation plan gets initial funding

- The replacement plan for a controversial Tampa interstate project received approval Tuesday for five years of funding, following a contentious Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting.

The Florida Department of Transportation project, called "Tampa Bay Next," replaced the Tampa Bay Express project, or TBX, after it didn't receive MPO approval during a marathon eight-hour meeting last year.

"Last year there were a lot of concerns the community brought to us, we've taken a step back and we're listening those concerns," said FDOT spokesperson Kris Carson. "It's really listening to the public, having them bring ideas. We're going to study those ideas."

The most controversial part of TBX was the plan to construct 90 miles of express toll lanes on Tampa Bay interstates, which would include the widening of I-275. Neighbors in Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights feared TBX disproportionately impacted their communities.

Carson said the first projects that will move forward through Tampa Bay Next are the reconstruction of the Howard Frankland Bridge and the reworking of the interchanges at I-275 and Westshore and I-275 and downtown Tampa.

The remainder of Tampa Bay Next, however, is up in the air, including whether express toll lanes will be revisited. Carson said FDOT plans to consider all the suggestions from the community as the agency moves forward.

Prior to the MPO approving its five-year budget, board members heard from dozens of member of the community, many of whom voiced the same concerns as they did last year.

"TBX plus B.S. equals Tampa Bay Next," said Doug Jesseph, a Seminole Heights resident. "I've not seen any substantive proposal that goes into the name of Tampa Bay Next. I've seen nothing that would lead me to conclude that there's some significant difference between TBX and the rebranded whatever-this-thing-is-supposed-to-be."

"What we want them to hear is that we can't accept a repeat of the past," added Curt Young, who lives in Tampa Heights. "There are models all over the world, all over the country that provide answers to these problems in a way that are more friendly to communities, more inclusive of residents, more embracing of families."

Tampa Bay Next has strong support from the business community, which also was largely in favor of TBX.

"It's not only going to clear up the bottleneck [at Westshore and I-275] but it's really our one chance in a lifetime to make some local street improvements in conjunction with that," said Ann Kulig, with the Westshore Alliance.

Carson said FDOT is conducting environmental and transit studies as part of Tampa Bay Next. The results will factor into how the project proceeds.

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