The average commuter in Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg spends about 41 hours a year in congested traffic, according to research from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI). Another study from TTI shows that in 2010, congestion on Interstate 275 Southbound wasted 562,000 gallons of fuel.
An effort from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), called the Tampa Bay Express, aims to alleviate these problems by adding a toll lane to Interstate 275 (I-275). A toll lane is an express lane that vehicles would pay to use. The rate would increase with demand and be clearly displayed on signs.
However, the lane might also challenge already-existing and historically significant communities, such as Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights, according to Elizabeth Strom, graduate director and associate professor at the School of Public Affairs.
“I think it’s really important that the residents of those communities make clear that they can’t just be wiped off the face of the earth because of highway expansion,” she said.
Strom said the communities are historically important to Tampa Bay and have also fought to improve with little investment.
“Tampa Heights was the first suburb of Tampa,” she said. “It was developed in, let’s say, the 1880s or 1890s originally, right next to downtown Tampa … It has a really lovely Victorian and 1920s-style houses … they have a really strong neighborhood association, they have a fabulous community garden that will be wiped out by the expanded highway.”
She said that Seminole Heights also has a prominent neighborhood association.
The Florida Center for Community Design & Research, a part of USF’s School of Architecture and Community Design, is cooperating with the Florida Department of Transportation in order to help communities get their voices heard.
According to Taryn Sabia, a researcher with the Center, those in favor of the project mainly include the business community, especially those that belong to the Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Sabia also said that the Westshore Alliance is in favor of Tampa Bay Express.
Mara LaTorre, a graduate student in Public Affairs who studies economic development, said she suggests improved public transit as a better method over adding to an already-messy interstate system.
“I feel like it’s kind of this catch-22 with the interstates as a whole … I feel like we’ve kind of created this monster over the course of time. We’ve created something where if we don’t take care of it and we don’t update it, that can cause a lot of safety and environmental repercussions,” she said. “But at the same time, this system that we created is not good for the local vitality of the area.”
LaTorre’s opinions on public transit match the general opinion of Millennials: 86 percent say affordable and efficient mass transit is important, according to a survey from the Rockefeller Foundation and Transportation for America. This survey includes Tampa-St. Petersburg as one of ten selected cities studied for public transportation preferences. The study placed Tampa-St. Petersburg’s mass transit in the “aspiring” group, the lowest rank in the study.
Sabia said that designs for the Express Bus aspect of the project, which intends to have mass transit buses that use the toll lane for faster travel, have not yet been fully completely.
“Ultimately, if we focus only on interstate projects, then we just encourage further sprawling development, so it’s important that we also focus on other transit-ready projects …” she said.
USF does not officially endorse or disparage the additional lane, according to Sabia, but instead plays a neutral position in meeting the needs of the affected communities. She also said the Florida Center is holding community workshops in order to represent affected neighborhoods.
Sabia said the project will not begin for five years, and that the projected end date is around 2030 or 2040, depending on funding.