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Hillsborough transportation group keeps I-275 expansion projects on track with midnight vote

TAMPA - Hillsborough leaders ultimately decided to keep two controversial Interstate 275 projects in the county's five-year transportation plan following six hours of discussion and a complicated re-vote Tuesday night.

The 16-person board of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which sets transportation priorities in the county, listened to four hours of public comment before taking a series of complex votes.

Though Tuesday night included multiple motions and amendments, the meeting resulted in little change to the county's plans.

Most of the evening's discussion centered on whether Hillsborough should continue to widen its interstates and expand its highway infrastructure. The board decided to move forward with two projects: The first is to add a lane to I-275 between Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and Bearss Avenue, making the 8-mile stretch four lanes in each direction; the other involves changes to the downtown interchange, including adding a lane to the flyover ramp connecting southbound I-275 and Interstate 4.

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People filled the county board room and spilled out into overflow seating. More than 70 people signed up to speak as part of the organization's annual update of its long-term and five-year plans. Close to two-thirds of the speakers were against the interstate expansion projects.

The evening was reminiscent of 2016 when citizens, politicians and business groups also turned out en mass to battle over the future of transportation in Hillsborough and the region. That meeting stretched until 2:30 a.m. Though some details have changed - for example, toll lanes are no longer part of the county's plans for I-275 north of downtown Tampa - much of the talking points and larger issues at hand remain the same.

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"We must reject the self-fulfilling prophecy of endless highway expansion that only leads toward clogged failure," said Michelle Cookson, spokeswoman for Sunshine Citizens, a group that opposes interstate expansion. "We are at a dire need for a massive paradigm shift."

Those who live closest to the interstate in Tampa's urban neighborhoods are frustrated that the state's transportation department continues to pursue additional highway lanes as the primary solution for the area's transportation problems. Meanwhile, those who support interstate expansion as an answer for congestion and safety issues say opponents refuse to support a balanced approach to the region's needs.

"We want our leaders to solve this (transportation) problem and the proposal tonight is one of the solutions,"said Chad Loar, president of PNC Bank's Florida West Region. "I presume we all agree (the downtown interchange) is dysfunctional, unsafe and in need of repair."

The board's decision to keep both interstate changes in its plans came down to a distinction from Plant City Mayor Rick Lott that the vote would not guarantee the two projects would ever be funded or built, but that it did keep them as an option moving forward.

"We're not approving anything tonight that finalizes a done deal is going to happen," Lott said. "My fear is if we pull this off tonight, it's over....We've got to start all over again trying to find the dollars again."

It's a narrative local Florida Department of Transportation secretary David Gwynn also shared with the board and community members.

The state has already allocated $80 million in 2023 to expand I-275 to four lanes in each direction from Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd to Hillsborough Avenue. It is seeking an additional $220 million for the rest of the project up to Bearss and an additional $200 million to add lanes and exits to the downtown interchange. Keeping the projects on the county's transportation priority list allows officials to start looking for that money, Gwynn said.

But a vote to remove the additional lanes from the county's long-term plan would've prevented the state from moving forward with its plans north of the downtown interchange, Gwynn said.

Five board members did vote against keeping the I-275 projects in the county's five-year plans: Hillsborough Commissioners Pat Kemp, Kimberly Overman, Mariella Smith and Les Miller along with Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco.Tampa City Council member Joseph Citro joined those five in voting against expanding downtown I-275 north to Bearss to four lanes in a separate motion for the county's long-range transportation plan.

The normally measured secretary showed a rare burst of frustration late in the evening after several community members and politicians criticized the department for placing the changes to the interchange on the county's priority list last minute and without much study.

"It is time to slow down... this is way, way premature," Kemp said.

But Gwynn pushed back, saying the county often puts items on its priority list, such as commuter rail along the CSX corridor, that have not been fully vetted and finalized.

"If the standard is that everything has to have gone through a complete study ... about half of your priority list comes out, you know that," Gwynn said. "We don't do it that way, we never have...This is nothing different than what we do on almost every project."

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The secretary said the board would be inconsistent with its treatment of transit and road projects if it sought to remove the downtown interstate changes from the priority list because public meetings and study results were still pending.

The night did face an odd turn when Hillsborough County Commissioner and board member Sandy Murman called for a re-vote after some board members expressed confusion over what items they had removed from the county's plans just moments earlier. Perhaps it was the late hour or the six hours spent listening to discussion, but Hillsborough County School Board representative Cindy Stuart said she and others had not realized they were voting to remove two county road projects (unrelated to I-275) from the five-year plan.

The board decided to reverse its position on one of the projects and keep an expansion of Balm Road on the county's priority list. The board did vote to remove an extension of Big Bend Road from the list.

Stuart and Murman said the changes to Balm Road are needed to accommodate a new high school that is slated to open nearby.

While opponents of the I-275 expansion were not surprised by the board's decision to keep the projects in the county's plans, Tampa Heights representative Rick Fernandez said he was "disgusted" with how the evening went.

"This was a terrible dysfunctional meeting, the public was totally disregarded," Fernandez said. "It is the typical practice of kicking the can down the road, that's all this was today."

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