TAMPA — State road planners want to accelerate a long-planned $2.5 billion project to add express toll lanes to Interstates 275 and 4 and bring an end to decades of gridlock through downtown Tampa.
But people living in Tampa Heights say the Tampa Bay Express project will destroy homes and businesses and reverse years of gains in revitalizing the historic neighborhood just north of Tampa’s downtown.
And now the Heights has a new ally in an increasingly bitter fight against the Florida Department of Transportation: the Tampa City Council.
After hearing from dozens of people from the neighborhood Thursday, council members unanimously agreed to try putting the brakes on the project, pledging to lobby state lawmakers, members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization and state transportation officials.
They also directed city attorneys to explore filing a Title VI complaint with the Federal Highway Administration, arguing that the project would harm a mainly minority population living in the area. Title VI prohibits discrimination in programs that receive federal funding.
“This project is not good for the neighborhood; it’s not good for the city,” said Councilman Mike Suarez.
But any halt or delay may prove an uphill task on a project that is part of a statewide plan to rejuvenate Florida’s overburdened interstate system — a plan backed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
Toll express lanes on I-95 in Miami have already eased congestion, said Debbie Hunt, District 7 director of transportation development with the state. The transportation department plans to push hard for state lawmakers to fund the project over the next two years.
As to the city council’s objection, Hunt said, “I understand they want to go down this path, it’s one of those things where we’ll see what happens,”
She added, “I’m pretty confident we’ve done everything we’re supposed to do and followed the federal process as we go through this project.”
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If the project is funded by lawmakers, the transportation department would add one or two express lanes in either direction along I-275 in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and on sections of I-4. The cost to drive the roads would vary depending on time of day, with fees higher during peak periods. Only drivers with Sunpass will be able to use the roads since there will be no toll booths or toll-by-plate cameras.
Plans for the project in the Tampa Bay area have been in the works for more than two decades. They included an environmental impact study required by federal law and completed in 1996.
But that was just a few years after the Tampa Heights area was designated a historic district in the U.S. national Register of historic Places. Since then, many homeowners have renovated historic homes either as residences or for small businesses. That includes Rochelle Gross, who renovated a Queen Anne home and leases it to a non-profit group that helps children who age out of the foster care system.
Gross said the plan for the expressway was drawn up when Tampa was a working hub for commuters from the suburbs and is badly out of date. Tampa leaders are now working to create urban, walkable connected communities around the downtown core.
“The interstate goes against everything the city of Tampa is working toward,” said Gross, also first vice president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association. “We’ve already suffered a great deal due to interstate coming through our neighborhood.”
Residents also fear that some of the neighborhood’s historic district will be lost and that picturesque areas attracting more restaurants and cafes will be marred by additional underpasses and high concrete walls. An online petition at change.org opposing the project has garnered more than 1,200 signatures.
State transportation officials said they want to work with neighbors to allay their concerns. The agency has been buying right-of-way and properties in the project’s footprint as they became available. It has relocated about 65 historic buildings in the Ybor City area to spare them from demolition, Hunt said.
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But one place under threat is the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association community center and community garden.
The association in 2010 agreed to lease the former Faith Temple Baptist Church on North Lamar Place, owned by the transportation department. A year later, it also partnered with the state to turn a plot of land in the project’s right-of-way into a community garden.
Since then, the association has made more than $1 million in improvements to the former church, including wooden floors, a new flat roof and $125,000 on a new air-conditioning system. About 90 local teenagers take youth development classes that include workforce readiness, preparation for college and culinary arts.
Both the center and the garden will be demolished when highway construction starts.
Executive Director Patrick Sneed said the lease was signed with the understanding that the express lanes project would not start for about 20 years.
“This is a place for the community to congregate,” Sneed said. “It’s a whole entire neighborhood being affected by this.”
But there is no time line spelled out in the lease. Transportation officials said it was made clear the lease was temporary and the state would take the properties back when it needs them.
The lease also states that no improvements should be made without transportation department approval. Hunt said the agency was not consulted about the renovations the association made.
“I was shocked at all the improvements that have been done,” Hunt said. “They have done an amazing job but we didn’t’ know anything about them.”
Councilwoman Lisa Montelione said that at minimum, the transportation department should update the environmental impact study to take account of the rejuvenation of Tampa Heights and she would like council members to have input on that.
“We’ve been spending money and working hard to uplift these communities,” Montelione said.
Council members will also ask the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a group of local elected leaders that prioritizes transportation projects, to remove the express lanes from the group’s list of approved projects.
Councilman Harry Cohen, who serves on the MPO, said he will try to schedule a meeting with Hunt of the transportation department.
“We have to break open a dialogue,” Cohen said. “The amount of money and time and effort that has been put into this area — let’s see what we can do to reason with them.”