Political clash over regional transit divides Tampa Bay senators
Open warfare among Republican Tampa Bay legislators claimed its latest casualty Monday, dooming hopes for legislative unity as a gridlocked region looks for solutions to its chronic transportation problems.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, offered a bill (SB 1672) in a Senate committee to create a revamped Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, the latest in a decade-long and so far ineffective effort to craft a regional approach to transit, including a light rail system linking Tampa and St. Petersburg.
But Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Tom Lee of Thonotosassa overrode Latvala with an amendment that strips the authority of its independence by requiring legislative approval for any local spending on a light rail system and barring the authority from spending money to advocate for light rail in a voter referendum. The amendment passed easily in the Senate Community Affairs Committee, which Lee chairs.
"Voters of Hillsborough County and Pineellas County have rejected these in the past," Brandes said. "My goal is that this doesn't become an opportunity for Greenlight Pinellas 2.0," referring to the latest rejection of a transit plan by county voters.
This clash is philosophical and political. Brandes and Lee battled in public with Latvala last week over whether state auditors should review a massive expansion project at Tampa International Airport, and Lee and Latvala have been increasingly caustic in their public interactions in the Capitol. Latvala on Monday publicly accused Lee of being the Senate point man for a number of controversial proposals by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes. Lee cried foul that Latvala's bill was not referred to a budget committee chaired by Brandes that deals with transportation spending.
Latvala was so livid at the transit maneuver by Brandes and Lee that he declined to speak to a Times/Herald reporter after the vote. As Latvala silently left the hearing room, Lee said: "You're welcome, Senator Latvala."
Barry Shevlin of the Tampa Bay Partnership, testifying in support of the revamped authority, said a regional transit system is long overdue and noted that Tampa Bay ranks at or near the bottom among the nation's 20 largest metro areas in six ways that the federal government measures the effectiveness of transit systems.