Change Malfunction Junction plans? Too late, says state

TAMPA — A vast majority of the comments delivered to the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization Wednesday night carried the same message: Kill it.

Turned out, the transportation planners had to deliver their own two-word response: Too late.

The critique — from nine of the 14 speakers at a public hearing, plus recorded testimonials and comments delivered via social media ― was aimed at the looming rebuild of the downtown Tampa interchange of interstates 275 and 4. Known commonly and derisively as Malfunction Junction, the interchange is set to undergo $140 million worth of construction work to add and move lanes and to rebuild an I-4 exit in an attempt to improve safety.

Residents said they fear additional highway intrusion into their neighborhoods. The bid for the project, however, is scheduled to be awarded before the end of the month, the state Department of Transportation said.

Once design work begins on a transportation project, it is considered beyond the point of no return and killing it requires endorsement from both the transportation planning organization and the state, said David Gwynn, state transportation secretary for the Tampa Bay region.

The debate came amid a three-hour meeting in which 14 members of the Transportation Planning Organization — county commissioners, elected municipal officials from Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, and appointees representing transportation agencies — considered Hillsborough’s transportation plans for the coming years.

The transportation improvement program is a $4.2 billion, five-year plan for roads, bridges, traffic signals, rail lines, sidewalks, bicycle trails and work at Port Tampa Bay. The state requires it to be updated annually.

The panel also considered a list of 95 projects to be added beyond 2027. They included $25 million for electric buses and $125 million for two maintenance facilities for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority, $70 million to widen 19th Ave. NE from two to four lanes between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 near Ruskin and $5 million for a new rail spur to Port Tampa Bay’s Port Redwing in Gibsonton. The latter is home to the recently opened Ardent Mills flour manufacturing plant.

Related: Widening I-275 still part of Hillsborough transportation plan

But the public’s primary focus was the downtown interchange. They lobbied, as they have since 2016, for a less auto-centric strategy for moving people.

“We’ve been saying pretty much the same things for seven years,” Rick Fernandez of Tampa Heights said before the hearing.

“This is my fifth year of speaking to you. I hope this will be the year that some of you will hold up the promise to make transit a priority,” said Shane Ragiel, also of Tampa Heights.

Some lauded the attention to Vision Zero, the strategy to reduce traffic fatalities, but said it didn’t do enough. In 2021, 255 people died in traffic crashes in Hillsborough County, the deadliest year ever on local roads.

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“The only way we’re going to get to Vision Zero is to reduce the number of cars on the road,” said longtime civic activist Mauricio Rosas.

The only blanket endorsement of the transportation improvement program came from Westshore Alliance executive director Michael Maurino. He pointed to multiple projects, known as complete streets, to make the Westshore area safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The board adopted the transportation program on a 12-2 vote with Tampa City Council members Guido Maniscalco and Lynn Hurtak dissenting.