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Despite setbacks, business leaders say they're behind mass transit for the long haul

November's voter referendum on mass transit in Hillsborough County? Strike 1.

Gov. Rick Scott putting the kibosh on the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail line? Strike 2.

Scott's recent line-item veto gutting much of the state funding for Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA)? Strike 3.

Let's face it. It's been a Big Whiff by Tampa Bay advocates of regional mass transit since last fall. But building mass transit support, like baseball, is a funny thing. You may strike out more than once, but you'll get another chance to bat later in the game.

While some mass transit backers feel chastened, Tampa Bay business leaders, transportation officials and many area politicians still argue the need will only increase for a better regional transportation system.

Sooner or later, the argument goes, a growing Tampa Bay will need a coordinated regional mass transit system composed of a more muscular bus system, selective light rail lines and improved roads. Without such a system, this region eventually will become an economic backwater as more companies take their jobs to places with transit systems that make it easier — and cheaper — for workers and, yes, even tourists to get around.

Stuart Rogel, Tampa Bay Partnership CEO and a key business leader for mass transit, admits the economic and political times demand a more practical look at transportation options and a greater willingness to be patient.

"A year ago, I would have told you we're talking about a mass transit plan made up of light rail plus buses and roads with a connection between downtown Tampa and USF as the first phase of a regional system," Rogel said.

"Today, I cannot be specific about the next project. We need to be pragmatic in this different climate. We saw the clouds coming, but nobody saw the storm," he said. "The pendulum shifted on Election Day."

Indeed, in less guarded moments, other transportation players licking their wounds are critical of a governor who, they say, seems so eager to accommodate area tea party leaders seeking sweeping government tax cuts.

The same players take comfort in Scott's negative ratings and ponder the possibility of a new governor in 2015.

A big challenge for those seeking a regional transit system is keeping all the interested parties talking to one another and, hopefully, sticking with transportation plans that gel with one another.

Here's a small sampling of what's been happening lately:

• The Tampa Bay Partnership, which threw its weight unsuccessfully behind the Hillsborough County referendum last fall with its "Moving Hillsborough Forward" campaign, now has shifted its focus to a new website dedicated to regional transit called Tampa Bay on Track ( www.tampabayontrack.org). Rogel says his group learned it needs to be more active in educating the public about mass transit options long before any specific plans go before voters. And he wants to find common ground with environmental and neighborhood groups that can agree that mass transit helps cut pollution and facilitates people getting to and from jobs.

• Last month, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) pulled the plug on an unfinished light-rail study while a board member expressed frustration over HART's lack of direction. HART has opted to pursue "bus rapid transit" routes with vehicles that control traffic signals to speed bus trips through street traffic.

• Getting new attention are alternative transit ideas such as "diesel motorized units" that can act like light rail but do not require electric lines and can operate on tracks or streets.

• The future of Orlando's commuter rail line known as SunRail will influence mass transit here. Scott, as of Friday, had not decided to pull the plug on state support. If SunRail survives, it means that all mass transit projects in Florida are not necessarily dead on arrival in Tallahassee.

• While TBARTA is smarting from Scott's $900,000-plus budget cut, executive director Bob Clifford wants to reposition his organization on broader transportation issues and less on light rail. "We see transportation infrastructure as all about economics," Clifford said. "It's about being competitive and delivering a quality of life."

• In Pinellas County, a June 23 "where are we now" meeting is set to discuss mass transit options. Separately, a group of pro-mass transit young professionals called TRANSITion Tampa Bay and chaired by Brian Seel (son of Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel) is still pushing for a regional system. Light rail still makes sense, eventually, to Brian Seel: "Creating a better bus system with some bus rapid transit is low-hanging fruit and a necessary short-term fix, especially since bus ridership and gas prices are up," he said. But long term? "A multimodal system" — meaning moving people by more than one method — "is the only solution."

In the world of mass transit, where things can take a long time to come to fruition, this ball game has just begun.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Despite setbacks, business leaders say they're behind mass transit for the long haul 06/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 4, 2011 4:31am]
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