Sunday, December 17, 2017
Business

As mass transit blossoms across Florida, Tampa Bay is stuck in slow lane

Take care, Tampa Bay. This region may soon be branded a straggler, the place that arrived at the station too late to catch the mass transit movement.

A recent meeting of Tampa Bay business and political leaders at a "regional transportation summit" featured 15 speakers, all with well-intended updates of metrowide transportation projects across the state.

But two concerns emerged from Thursday's event. First, many area transportation projects were still presented piecemeal, lacking a recipe or chef to pull them all together into one viable mass transit system.

Second, most of the big mass transit strides pitched at the summit are happening elsewhere in Florida.

Here, we are waiting for the voters' blessing, as in Pinellas County's proposed penny tax referendum on mass transit, dubbed Greenlight Pinellas, scheduled for next fall. Or, in Hillsborough County's case, we are still trying to regain the nerve to offer another mass transit plan after voters in 2010 crushed a county transportation referendum at the peak of anti-tax opposition and a recession.

If the Pinellas referendum succeeds, we must wait for Hillsborough to rally. If Pinellas fails, it's unlikely Hillsborough will feel emboldened. You see the pattern. Tampa Bay moves at the pace of its weakest link.

"In a number of areas, you still have a long way to go," U.S. Rep. John Mica told the summit via video. A Republican from the Orlando area and veteran member of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Mica reminded 200 attendees that Tampa Bay is a rare breed: one of the nation's two (including Cincinnati) among the top 30 metro areas that still lacks a mass transit system that includes rail.

"The (2010) referendum was lost, but you have to dust yourselves off," Mica scolded, and try it again.

Meanwhile, mass transit projects elsewhere in the state grabbed the summit spotlight.

An ambitious, privately funded project called All Aboard Florida is starting a rail line to connect downtown Miami with Orlando International Airport — travel time: under three hours — with stops in downtown Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The project of Florida East Coast Industries is not just about reviving intercity rail travel in the state.

Company vice president Rusty Roberts said each stop of the rail line will be aggressively developed with stations that look like modern airport concourses and could include hotels and office towers.

That's not all. All Aboard Florida also will connect to local mass transit systems, from Miami's Metrorail and downtown Metromover, Broward County's Tri-Rail System, and the soon-to-launch SunRail commuter line serving the Orlando area.

How does this all affect Tampa Bay?

If the next destination is Jacksonville, as some contend, Tampa Bay could be left behind. Tampa Bay business leaders and public officials, notably Hillsborough County Commissioner (and mass transit fan) Mark Sharpe, are in close touch with All Aboard Florida officials to see how Tampa Bay might fit in a statewide rail network.

It does not help that All Aboard Florida wants its network to connect to regional transportation systems — and Tampa Bay mass transit planning is in disarray.

Tampa International Airport chief executive and mass transit speaker Joe Lopano expressed regional frustration when he joked it was easier to get nonstop airline service from Tampa to Zurich than it is to get a nonstop bus line connecting his airport to downtown Tampa.

To his credit, Lopano is pursuing a "people mover" or rail line that by 2017 would connect the main TIA concourse to a less congested rental car facility near the airport's cellphone waiting lot. He sees that line extending further, into the West Shore area where passengers could board, check in and be whisked to their waiting flights. He's hopeful that West Shore site will, in turn, tap into future mass transit services.

Mass transit is not just about transportation. Metro areas lacking modern ways to swiftly move increasing numbers of people — be they tourists or potential employees — around sprawling regions are doomed to become backwater locations in the minds of major companies weighing best options for expansion.

Brad Miller gets this. The chief executive of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and advocate for the Greenlight Pinellas 2014 referendum says a mass transit system can help kick-start a sleepy local economy.

"Pinellas needs to grow again," Miller says. "It needs a transportation solution."

So does the entire metro area.

Assembling all these pieces will not be easy. One skeptic at Thursday's summit asked, "Why should we pay now for something so far ahead?" One speaker offered an honest if unpopular explanation to those still wary of the weaker economy.

"This is about the next generation," said Ray Chiaramonte, Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization executive director. "This is kind of what we do."

Now Tampa Bay just needs to figure out how not to be left behind.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

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