Tom Jackson: TBX meets the Star Trek test

TBX transportation (Large)

As someone who lives near a thoroughfare in a constant state of construction, I sympathize with anyone who looks upon the approach of road expansion with dread.

It’s noisy. It’s dirty. It’s inconvenient. It’s hard on tires and suspensions. It impedes traffic in ways that seem to outweigh any eventual benefit.

And all but the last is demonstrably true, because when that stretch of improved multi-lane boulevard opens, all smooth and wide and freshly striped, it is as if the gates of heaven have opened. The release of pent-up motorists makes you remember why you were so eager to learn to drive in the first place.

The hard fact is, road-widening is part of life in the big city, a truth that prevails even where there are modern and convenient mass-transit systems. And enduring those seemingly endless projects tests the limits of the most patient and forgiving drivers.

I say all this to acknowledge the concerns of and even to sympathize, to a point, with those who oppose TBX — shorthand for Tampa Bay Express — the multibillion-dollar project in which the Florida Department of Transportation proposes to add express toll lanes to Bay area Interstates 4, 75 and 275.

Making it happen will mean some businesses and some residential neighborhoods, particularly around the junction of I-4 and I-275 — still, as ever, “Malfunction Junction” — will be sacrificed. To be fair, DOT is obligated to pay at- or above-market rates for the properties it condemns. There’s also a relocation assistance program those affected will be able to tap.

Even so, there’s bound to be pain in the loss of certain historical or well-loved landmarks. Those opposed to TBX make a compelling case that this is no way to run a transportation system, or the next great metroplex.

On the other hand, there’s that whole the-needs-of-the-many/needs-of-the-few-or-the-one Star Trek thing at play here, too. And, let’s face it: With the seventh-worst congestion in America, we need better ways to get from here to there around the Bay Area. As proposed, TBX does that.

The project adds a new toll lane in each direction, stretching north to Bearss Avenue and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard; east to the Hillsborough-Polk county line; and south to the Gateway area in St. Petersburg. It also provides for a new, beefier span of the Howard Franklin Bridge capable of supporting some sort of rail system; and buys up rights of way for future transit projects.

Another happy result: As presently conceived, the toll lanes would be available to buses, providing a useful step in the direction of true bus rapid transit, a lower-cost alternative often called “light rail on tires.”

Consider Walt Disney World. Famous for a splendid monorail system which moves about 150,000 guests on any given day, the globe’s most-popular themed resort transports even more guests via the state’s third-largest bus fleet.

Revealingly, when it redesigned its old Downtown Disney shopping, dining and entertainment center as Disney Springs, the transportation features it included — linking the rechristened area with nearby Typhoon Lagoon — wasn’t a monorail, but BRT lanes running down the center of Buena Vista Boulevard.

Listen, if even the insightful people movers at Disney aren’t eager to spring for additional monorail options — and they’re world-famous for such things — the idea that they’d be a primary, or even suitable, choice for our sprawling transportation challenges seems fanciful.

Perhaps the flimsiest of objections, however, involves the socio-economic separating of travelers along can-afford/can’t-afford toll-lane charges.

Better, it seems, to keep us all in shared, clogged misery than allow some drivers to slip smugly ahead on their “Lexus Lanes” surrounded by their 1-percent bubbles.

Except that’s not how it works. Everywhere express toll lanes have gone in — and they’ve gone in lots of places, even those with excellent mass transit systems — commute times shrunk and travel speeds rose not only for those footing the tolls, but also for the 99 percenters presumably stuck in the free lanes.

From Miami to Atlanta to Charlotte to Washington D.C. to Dallas to Seattle and more, this simple phenomenon of physics has repeated itself wherever toll lanes have been installed as part of existing highways.

Which probably explains why regions that built express toll lanes keep adding them.

If somebody wants to pay to get out of my way and my speed goes up a dozen miles an hour — a documented accounting — what’s it to me if Mr. Moneybags’ speed goes up by 30?

Did I mention most of these cities have abundant mass transit options?

The examples of Atlanta, Charlotte, and Seattle rebuke those who complain that FDOT’s toll-lane proposal undercuts efforts to beef up mass conveyances in the Bay area. In short, it’s not an either/or proposition. Interstate toll lanes can, and do, provide alternatives for travelers who reject public transportation as inconvenient or undesirable, but stick them with the cost of their choice.

Besides, we’ve already passed the toll-roads test. We have them, and they are well-used, putting the lie to any notion that few area motorists can afford the dent to their budgets. Holding up the Selmon and Veterans/Suncoast expressways as an argument against adding interstate toll lanes make as much sense as rejecting steak because you already have lobster.

Alas, in the recent Hillsborough County Commission primary, Democrats soundly rejected John Dicks, the former Plant City mayor who was the project’s only full-throated supporter, for TBX opponent Pat Kemp.

Even GOP winner Tim Schock lends only tepid support.

This is important, because November’s victor will be positioned to influence the waltz between FDOT and the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

And, given the options, TBX needs to happen.

This isn’t to say toll lanes are an ideal solution, but ideal should not be the enemy of the useful. And equally shared misery so no one gets their feelings hurt never should be the goal of transportation engineers.

Tom Jackson

Recovering sports columnist and former Tampa Tribune columnist Tom Jackson argues on behalf of thoughtful conservative principles as our best path forward. Fan of the Beach Boys, pulled-pork barbecue and days misspent at golf, Tom lives in New Tampa with his wife, two children and two yappy middle-aged dogs.


  • Rick Fernandez

    September 8, 2016 at 8:09 am

    What Do Florida Politics, Tampa Bay Express and Star Trek have in common? My response to Tom Jackson …
    Mr. Jackson, you have seen fit to write a political endorsement supporting the republican candidate for Hillsborough County Commission, District 6. Certainly, that is your right.
    It is my right to support and vote for the Democrat in the race, Pat Kemp, the well informed, progressive, transportation/transit advocate who is on time and on point to address the needs of Hillsborough County.
    That said, you have used the Rick Scott Express (a/k/a TBX) as cover to advance your political agenda. Here, I take issue …
    You have one thing right, Mr. Jackson: Rick Scott’s toll road boondoggle will, in fact, be noisy, dirty and inconvenient. But not just during construction. That noise, dirt, inconvenience, etc., etc., will remain a part of our built environment for decades. Why?
    According to you, all this heartache is worth it because …
    “when that stretch of improved multi-lane boulevard opens, all smooth and wide and freshly striped, it is as if the gates of heaven have opened. The release of pent-up motorists makes you remember why you were so eager to learn to drive in the first place.”

    Mr. Jackson, while you’re enjoying your semi-retirement in New Tampa with your two yappy dogs (reference your author bio), do some research. A Google search using the key phrase “Induced Demand” should get you moving in the right direction … even if your pet toll road project won’t.
    What you’ll find is that widening roads (with or without Scott’s toll lanes) will not reduce congestion. There is no orgasmic release in store for the masses. There is only more traffic, more congestion and more gridlock.
    If “road-widening is part of life in the big city”, as you suggest, it’s only because some big cities do not have the political leadership, citizen involvement and will to say no to these projects.
    The current election cycle will give us all a chance to do something about the lacking political leadership in Hillsborough County. Citizens are engaged and motivated around the transit issue and, by a 2 to 1 margin, oppose TBX. We’re saying NO to Rick Scott … NO to the Florida Department of Transportation … and, NO to you, Mr. Jackson.
    As a resident of Tampa Heights, I neither solicit nor appreciate your sympathy over our plight. The plight you so callously describe as follows: “Making it (TBX) happen will mean some businesses and some residential neighborhoods, particularly around the junction of I-4 and I-275 — still, as ever, “Malfunction Junction” — will be sacrificed … there’s bound to be pain in the loss of certain historical or well-loved landmarks.”
    The residential neighborhoods you so easily dismiss are the heart of Tampa. Our city’s culture and history percolate up through West Tampa, Ybor City, Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights, Downtown and Hyde Park. All these areas will be adversely impacted by TBX.
    Tampa Heights alone stands to lose 12 contributing structures within its National Historic District. All told, some 130 businesses and homes are in jeopardy secondary to TBX. That doesn’t even begin to calculate the losses in terms of public space lost by the acre to FDOT concrete and asphalt.
    Indeed, this is “no way to run a transportation system, or the next great metroplex.”
    Now we come to your central premise … The Star Trek test: you have concluded the Rick Scott Express satisfies the needs of the many and should therefore be prioritized over the “needs of the few”.
    By the needs of the many you must be referring to folks like yourself … those choosing to live in New Tampa or Wesley Chapel or Pasco County.
    By “the few” you must be referring to folks like me … those choosing to live in the urban core, where we neither need nor want further intrusion by the interstate.
    Do I have that right? Is your hope of reducing a commute by 10 minutes (maybe 10 years from now) to be prioritized over my right to quiet enjoyment of my home? Have you forgotten that the urban core communities have been sacrificed for “the greater good” for six decades in order to satisfy this area’s insatiable hunger for sprawl? Did you somehow not notice that there was a commute associated with your decision to move to New Tampa?
    Mr. Jackson … sell it somewhere else.
    We do need better ways “to get from here to there around the Bay Area”. Contrary to your assertion, TBX does not do that. TBX simply doubles down on a decade’s old, car centric agenda. It’s time to stop digging that hole.
    It’s not an either/or proposition. The cities you mention (Atlanta, Seattle, Charlotte) do have transit options. They’ve had them for a long time. We, on the other hand, are single mindedly invested in cars and roads. We must balance the investment portfolio or continue to suffer the aftermath of a failed transportation system.
    What do Florida Politics, TBX and Star Trek have in common? Only you, Mr. Jackson. And a tortured, ill informed connection at best.

  • Taylor Ralph

    September 8, 2016 at 9:17 am

    Clearly you love the FDOT talking points rather than facts. Miami ‘Express’ lanes have been deemed dangerous, disliked by police/emergency agencies, and the public. The commute times are not impacted significantly, and at a cost of BILLIONS of dollars represent 1950s transportation planning in the 21st Century. Cities you mention are working their way out of congestion not with more roads, but with less roads and more access to transit options (better development patterns, walkable/bikable communities, and yes–RAIL). The ROI of TBX is 0. The ROI of fixed mass transit in the right areas of any city (where density is building, or already is) is 10-20-30-40x. Further, the idea that other toll lanes work in Tampa (Selmon, Veterans)–consider this….they offer a different ROUTE and a CONSISTENT PRICE. TBX does neither, and it will not fix any congestion meaningfully…and unfortunately that is the point. Without congestion TBX is worthless. Tampa has congestion 4 hrs per day (rush hour), are we spending $6-9B to fix 1/6 of our day for the 1% of commuters that want to pay? Doesn’t pencil out, so I suggest you wake up and realize that more roads don’t fix congestion–and Tampa shouldn’t repeat the mistakes that Atlanta, Houston and other cities made in the 20th Century, mistakes they are trying to fix with non-road transit options. We have an opportunity to embrace autonomous vehicles, car sharing (Uber, etc.), a denser downtown area, people’s desire for LESS sprawl–not your 1950s uneducated view of transportation planning. I-275 and I-4 are clogged because of the bottlenecks at malfunction junction and SR60. The funds for TBX can fix those issues, replace the bridge, etc.–but we DON’T need to expand the footprint of our interstates any more–we just have to demand better design, ask DOT to stop creating bottlenecks so they can justify more roads projects to justify their lined pockets, and work together to build a more prosperous future for Tampa Bay that includes less pollution in our already ‘F’ rated air (by the American Lung Association).

  • Roger Carrillo

    September 8, 2016 at 10:43 am

    Should stick to sports writing as you obviously have drank the Kool-Aid on TBX. Ranked as one of the 12 largest boondoggles in the country.

  • Doug Jesseph

    September 8, 2016 at 12:13 pm

    It’s quite astonishing to see an alleged proponent of “thoughtful conservative principles” invoke the collectivist maxim that the needs of the many must outweigh the property rights, livelihoods, and neighborhoods of “the few.” Setting aside the fact that there are a great many who would be harmed by TBX, it is worth noting that its intended beneficiaries are almost exclusively white Republican suburbanites who live in gated communities and feel entitled to a gated interstate. Mr. Jackson should know that the original routing of I-275 was chosen by avowed white supremacists with the intent of inflicting maximum damage on the non-white population of Tampa. Now, Mr. Jackson wants to double down on this racist legacy by inflicting even more damage on urban neighborhoods so that white suburbanites can be spared an average of 4 minutes per trip (according to the time estimates in the TBX Master Plan). There is nothing thoughtful or conservative about this.

Comments are closed.


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