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Friday, Jan 19, 2018
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A $9 billion question

The Florida Department of Transportation’s $9 billion express lane plan needs further scrutiny before proceeding. There are unanswered questions about the toll lanes’ design, and DOT has not explained why investing $9 billion in a single transportation project is the best use of limited taxpayer resources. Hillsborough County has a diverse population that lives in neighborhoods ranging from rural to urban. DOT should take time to listen to the community and develop plans that reflect the needs of our entire county.

FDOT’s express lane plan would add the new lanes on interstates 4, 75 and 275. The lanes would be tolled, and drivers would be charged a variable toll ranging from 50 cents to $10, depending on the time of day and demand. The new highway toll lanes would run north to south from Lutz to the Sun City Center area and east to west from Polk County to Pinellas Park.

In support of the plan, officials with DOT cite similar toll lanes built in South Florida. As someone who had the misfortune of driving in Miami, I question whether South Florida should serve as a model for Hillsborough County.

The Sun Sentinel recently reported that the South Florida lanes met DOT’s traffic goals only 59 percent of the time during the afternoon rush hour in November and December. To get traffic moving on the express lanes, DOT is now looking to raise the maximum toll in Miami from $10 to $14 — or higher.

Residents have strongly opposed prior toll projects, like the infamous “Green Swath of Death” beltway, which was proposed for the Tampa Bay area several years ago but never materialized. Many of the toll lanes that did get built in Hillsborough have not provided a long-term solution. I grew up in Carrollwood and remember when the Veterans Expressway opened. It initially offered a quick ride into Westshore. The road is now the site of daily traffic jams.

Even if the express lanes offered relief on the highway, all the additional traffic ends up on overburdened local roads. Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, State Road 60, Big Bend Road and Kennedy Boulevard each offer daily headaches for drivers. DOT’s plans could create bigger problems for neighborhoods once vehicles leave the express lanes.

WLRN, a South Florida television station, recently reported that the Miami express lanes have come under fire because they lack space for disabled vehicles to pull over and because drivers attempt to “dive” out of the express lanes, through upright plastic dividers, and into the untolled lanes of traffic.

WLRN’s report raises questions about whether FDOT’s express lane designs are safe.

DOT’s plan is even more stunning when you consider what else we could be doing with taxpayer dollars.

For decades, we have been considering options to create a truly multimodal transportation system.

Many areas of Hillsborough County have almost non-existent bus service. We have some of the most dangerous streets in the country for pedestrians and bicyclists.

If we wanted to try to reduce the number of people killed while walking or riding a bike, we could design safer “complete” streets.

A recent program by FDOT to reduce deaths and injuries on Fletcher Avenue cost $1.6 million per mile. For a fraction of the cost of the express lanes we could build more complete streets and make our neighborhoods safer.

The Greenlight Pinellas plan would have added 24 miles of light rail and dramatically improved bus service in Pinellas County. Greenlight Pinellas would have cost $2.2 billion to build and operate for 30 years. For a fraction of the cost of the express lanes we could build and operate a light-rail system with an extensive bus network.

Government must be held accountable for how taxpayer dollars are spent on transportation. Decades of highway expansion have only led to more gridlock. FDOT needs to explain to voters why we should be investing $9 billion in a single system when our county and region have so many other needs.

Taxpayers deserve a robust discussion about whether the costly express lane project is the best use of our scarce resources.

Brian C. Willis is an attorney in Tampa.

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A $9 billion question