TAMPA — License plate frames in the parking lot of the American Legion post 111 assured that Old Seminole Heights is “historic and friendly.” When it comes to expanding the nearby highway to a width the size of a football field, though, residents are preparing to put up quite a fight.
“We need to keep our voices on the same song and keep going,’’ said Tampa Heights stalwart Lena Young Green as she rallied a crowd of hundreds of concerned Tampa and Seminole Heights residents Tuesday night. “Don’t fall asleep now. They see the same faces all the time; we have to show them.”
Speakers from several local community groups organized the town hall meeting to put pressure on the Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Planning Organization to stop plans for the Tampa Bay Express project that would widen portions of Interstate 275 with toll lanes.
The Metropolitan Planning Organization will meet Aug. 4, and community organizers expect residents to show up in throngs.
More than 2,000 people already have signed a petition on stoptbx.com to remove the project from road plans. At Tuesday’s town hall meeting, activists and businesses owners helped answer residents’ questions about the 175-page expansion plan. Boxes of postcards were covered with messages, and a video camera set up in the back of the hall recorded residents’ complaints to send to public officials. County Commissioner Les Miller’s phone number was read out to the crowd.
Green, president of Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association, has lived in the Tampa Heights community for years. She said she watched urban flight 20 years ago when the original state Department of Transportation’s plan to add four to eight lanes to interstates 275, 75 and 4 were originally drafted.
But the community has evolved since then, she said. Millennials are moving into the neighborhood in droves. Children and grandchildren want to return to the area where they were raised.
“We loved our urban core,” Green said. “We loved what was happening in our neighborhood, our brick roads, our old houses; we loved having our neighbors as our friends and friends as our neighbors.”
The expansion plan isn’t only going to affect those living in its shadow, said Mit Patel, CEO of five locations of MIT Computers stores and an advisor at the USF Center for Entrepreneurship.
“Every time they do construction like this it hurts my business,” said Patel, who lives in Hyde Park. “Any change in traffic patterns is a change in shopping habits, and this is going to wipe out so many exits and make it so hard for people to take a quick hop off Fowler or Hillsborough that they’re just going to wait until they get home to go shopping.”
Adding the toll lanes, which will cost anywhere from 15 cents to $2 per mile depending on the time of day, will only add more stress to the already overcrowded roads and decimate housing values, Patel said. Not to mention the 35 historic Ybor homes that will be taken out by the project, the Robles Park lake that is already being dredged and multiple other buildings that will be effected, said Chris Vela, a Ybor resident and president of Sunshine Citizens.
Downtown Tampa resident Adam Metz said the plan was “pork barrel spending at its absolute worst,” and worried about the burden the $9 billion project will have on tax payers.
It will also decreases property values, which will impact “how much the city and county receives from us in taxes and how many services you’ll receive from the city and county because they’re getting less money,” said Tampa Heights resident Taryn Sabia.
Matthew Suarez said he can’t help but think of his great grandmother, who was kicked out of her home in Ybor City in the 1960’s to make room for Interstate 4 .The expansion will have untold ripple effects on the area, he said, and will mar civic enhancements like the band shell at WaterWorks Park downtown that have been paid for with taxpayer dollars.
“I’m here for her and all of the other members in my family to make sure this community remains what it’s been remembered for,” Suarez said.
Patel said it’s not too late to stop the project.
“If people get educated and contact FDOT and elected politicians, I’m confident it will be stopped,” Patel said. “The facts are the facts, and there aren’t any big groups out there saying they want it, we need more toll roads. It’s just education.”