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Column: New law is big win for Tampa Bay regional transit

By Rick Homans, special to the Times

Gov. Rick Scott has signed into law a bill that will repurpose and re-energize the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority to serve as a much-needed structure for planning, implementing and operating regional transit in Tampa Bay. The Tampa Bay metro area is the 18th largest in the country and home to more than 3 million people, yet we are glaringly out of step with other great markets across the nation that have developed regional structures to operate regional transit.

The new legislation provides TBARTA with clarity and purpose, and it charges TBARTA with an important task: working with Tampa Bay's transit agencies to develop a regional transit plan, ensuring that we coordinate the development of routes and stations to eventually function as a regional system. Other key components of the bill include changing the organization's name to the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority; reducing the current seven-county geographic footprint to include only Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Manatee counties; and restructuring the governing board to include nonelected leadership from the private sector as well as representatives from the region's two largest transit agencies, HART and PSTA.

Why do we need an agency to focus on regional transit?

Every workday, an estimated 1.2 million residents commute to work, with nearly 250,000 of them crossing county lines to reach their jobs. For these commuters, our limited cross-border transit service means public transportation is not a possibility, which limits options for workers and the companies that need them. This creates a competitive disadvantage for the region, which ranks 77th among the top 100 metro areas in access to jobs by transit.

This legislation will make significant progress toward putting a regional structure in place and taking the first tangible step toward the development of a regional transit system in Tampa Bay.

The significance of the bill's passage is hard to overstate. Florida lawmakers filed more than 3,000 bills this year, and fewer than 250 passed both houses of the Legislature before the regular session ended last month.

Getting to this point has truly been a team effort, and this victory is one we all can share.

Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, is chairman of the bay area legislative delegation and set the stage for the success of this initiative at the delegation's annual meeting in February. He has continued to work behind the scenes to keep the members of our delegation focused on solving the region's transportation challenges.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, were the sponsors of the bill and demonstrated tremendous leadership in advancing the legislation through their respective chambers during a very active session. Through five separate committee stops and votes by the House and Senate, the bill received unanimous bipartisan support, and the final version incorporates valuable input from numerous local leaders.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, spearheaded the creation of TBARTA a decade ago, and as co-sponsor of the bill, along with Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, ensured the organization stayed true to the original intent of improving mobility and expanding multimodal transportation options throughout the region.

For years, these lawmakers have asked the community to provide a unified voice on the issues that matter most to Tampa Bay. This session, our regional business leaders did exactly that. Tampa Bay Partnership chair Rhea Law and the Partnership's Transportation Working Group co-chairs Barry Shevlin and Jeff Vinik stepped up in a big way to champion this bill, along with more than a dozen local executives who traveled to Tallahassee in April to make the case for this critical legislation.

Acknowledgement should also go to the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce for their early endorsement of the bill, as well as Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn for adding their voice of support.

Our work doesn't end here, and we'll have much to do in the coming months and years to develop a streamlined and effective regional transit authority. But this is a big win for Tampa Bay, ushered in by a new era of regional leadership, vision and cooperation.

Rick Homans is the president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership.