Mass transit planners could learn from water wars of the 90s, state Sen. Jack Latvala says
There are lessons the players working to solve Tampa Bay's mass transportation shortfalls should learn from the region's infamous water wars of the 90s, state Sen. Jack Latvala said Wednesday.
After Pinellas County purchased land in Pasco in 1976 to drill wells and pump water back to its residents, Pinellas' population boom over the next 20 years took a toll on the supply.
Lakes and wells literally went dry, prompting a massive legal battle in 1994 between Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties without much relief for consumers.
“Lawyers were making millions of dollars in legal fees and really nothing was being accomplished,” Latvala said.
But with collaboration and urgency, elected officials pushed for the creation of Tampa Bay Water in 1998, the regional nonprofit water supply authority that owns the region's water sources, sells the water to six member governments and has the oversight to prevent the environmental damage that Pinellas' overpumping once caused Pasco.
The same collaboration and unified effort used to end the water wars must be applied to building a mass transportation system or else the region could face its own transportation disaster.
“If we hadn't had Tampa Bay Water, we were facing the potential of a building moratorium,” Latvala said. “If we don't solve some sort of regional transportation problem...that's going to bog down the continued growth for our region.”
About two dozen area legislators met Wednesday to confirm the need for a regional approach to transportation infrastructure and policy going forward. The two-hour roundtable discussion at Ruth Eckerd Hall was in response to a study released by advocacy group Tampa Bay Partnership that stressed the weak coordination between the counties and barriers to achieving a regional mass transit.
Chairing the Partnership's working group on the transit effort, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Vology CEO Barry Shevlin said the issue is vital in preparing for area's projected population growth over the next decade.
“The roads are only going to get more clogged in the years ahead,” Vinik said. “If we wait another five, ten years as a community to make decisions on this, it's going to constrain our growth.”
Shevlin said all municipalities must begin thinking in a regional mindset and not as insulated units.
He said there are too many projects competing for state and federal dollars that should instead be being planned collaboratively.
A centerpiece of the Partnership's study, conducted by the non-partisan Washington, D.C., think tank Eno Center, states Tampa Bay should voluntarily merge its county-based MPO (metropolitan planning organization) structure to a single, independent organization not housed by a single local government.
Poor coordination between the counties is also misguiding services, the study shows. For example, on weekends the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit has 14 buses going from Dover, in eastern Hillsborough County, to Downtown Tampa but “absolutely no weekend service between Downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg or Clearwater, the other two large cities in Tampa Bay."
And with an estimated 84 percent of jobs not accessible within a 90 minute transit commute, that barrier is hurting low-income workers' efforts to find and maintain employment.
Legislators overwhelmingly agreed any future policy, legislation and transit projects should have a regional approach.
But they acknowledged the allocation of funding and buy-in from the public to accomplish this can be challenging.
“There's still a parochialism when it comes to planning, funding and the timing, and it's very hard to convince a county commission in Sarasota County to contribute dollars for a project in Hillsborough County on the basis this plan that was put out eventually will get to them,” said state Sen. Bill Galvano. “The real challenge... (is) having the mindset that you may have to ante up in your community for a regional plan that's not going to impact your community for maybe one, two, three or four years.”
State Sen. Darryl Rouson and Rep. Sean Shaw said they both support regional approaches but reminded their colleagues that taxpayers are weary of the controversial toll road project Tampa Bay Express.
“We do have to make sure we keep in mind how our community feels about transportation and what that word means to different parts of the community,” Shaw said. “I would just hope that going forward (Florida Department of Transportation) continues to reach out and make sure the community is heard and that the chasm between those who want it and those who don't is bridged. Right now it is a chasm.”