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From Rays to mass transit, regionwide systems to finance our wish list is lacking

Are we one cohesive metropolitan region made up of counties and cities? Or are we a disconnected gaggle of towns and counties that fall under one metro area?

It's not a trick question. But it does raise a growing concern: Are the needs of a growing Tampa Bay region undermined by a yesteryear, parochial approach to how we pay for big-ticket items?

The future of our Major League Baseball franchise is one such big-ticket item. So, too, is our piecemeal funding of mass transit. Even the financing of our price-rocketing nuclear power plant in Levy County is suspect.

The latest example is the Tampa Bay Rays. On Monday, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said the team wants to explore all geographic options for a new ballpark in this metro area. Sternberg picked his words carefully, stressing that he will do all he can to keep the team in the "region," but urged a "regional" discussion soon on the team's future.

When purchasing the Rays in 2005, Sternberg inherited a commitment for the Rays to play until 2027 at Tropicana Field, a stadium largely funded with tax dollars from St. Petersburg and Pinellas County residents (and tourists). The Rays now want to move to a location more likely to attract bigger crowds (in a new stadium). And St. Pete wants to keep a valuable asset — the Rays — that the city clearly stretched financially to attract by building an expensive and, initially, empty stadium.

The outcome is lopsided. An entertainment asset with regional appeal is funded by a small piece of the metro area.

Just as momentum builds for a new stadium, Tampa Bay also is wrestling with the money required to build a regional, mass transit system. It calls for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, and a light-rail and bus system stretching across our multicounty metro area. A federal grant is partially funding the high-speed rail. And, so far, Hills­borough County hopes voters this November approve a penny tax increase to help fund the county's mass transit plan.

Presumably, Pinellas County would then try to duplicate Hillsborough's funding idea, as would adjacent counties expected to be part of the metro region mass transit system. It's piecemeal funding, though. What if Hillsborough approves its part of the mass transit funding but Pinellas or perhaps Pasco County fails to deliver?

It's the risk of an outdated financing plan jeopardizing a larger regional goal. It's the tail wagging the dog.

The Levy nuclear power plant proposed by Progress Energy Florida is a slightly different project. But like a baseball team or a mass transit system, it also is a very expensive project that would benefit the larger Tampa Bay region. How? By supplying added electricity capacity to an area expected to roughly double in population by around 2050.

At first Progress Energy hoped to cover the Levy plant's upfront costs by raising electricity rates. That has not gone over well during a recession, prompting Progress Energy to back off rate hikes and even pushing the completion date for the plant further into the future.

The bottom line? We are really lousy at figuring out more equitable ways to spread the cost for the few big regional things we want. Or are we simply biting off more than we can chew?

I suspect the former.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

From Rays to mass transit, regionwide systems to finance our wish list is lacking 06/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 22, 2010 9:17am]
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