On one of the coldest mornings of the year, Idaho native Scott Jones arrived for breakfast last week in short sleeves.
However, Jones brought more than a hearty tolerance for chilly weather from Boise, Idaho, four years ago. The vice president of operations for Newland Communities has a tool belt that includes both development and transportation expertise.
He oversees Waterset, Newland's nascent development in Apollo Beach, and serves on the Hillsborough County Transportation Task Force and the Citizens Advisory Committee of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority.
With a light rail transit initiative likely to be on the 2010 ballot, Jones is uniquely qualified to discuss the issues surrounding the future of transportation in the South Shore and Brandon areas.
Some initial proposals have a seven-county regional effort beginning with a line running from the University of South Florida through downtown and to the Tampa International Airport.
That first phase may not sound like it's going to impact folks out here, but Jones said you have to realize that improved mass transit will make Tampa more attractive to industry and ultimately generate more jobs and boost the economy.
"Just because you don't use it doesn't mean you don't benefit from it," Jones noted.
Any plan also would include improvements to the local bus
system delivering people to Tampa. Whether we eventually have rail running to east Hillsborough or just more timely bus service, it's going to prove to be critical out here.
Why? Consider what we spend on housing and transportation. Jones, referencing a study by the nonprofit Center For Housing Policy, noted that the effort to save on housing costs by moving farther away from urban centers often results in higher transportation costs and a larger portion of the household budget being consumed by both.
"For every dollar someone saved on housing costs by moving, you cost yourself 77 cents in transportation costs," Jones said. "And that's at $2 a gallon."
On average, Tampa-area residents devote 33 percent of their household expenses to transportation. That's higher than all the other top 27 metro areas in the study, and the number will only increase when — not if — gas prices rise.
Obviously, Newland has a vested interest because increased public transportation ultimately makes its communities more attractive. Jones, however, argues that Newland's involvement comes from the practicality of tying development and transportation together.
"The question is do you plan the transportation system first, or do you plan the land use first?" Jones said. "If you plan the transportation system too far out in anticipation, people say you're encouraging development in an area that may not be ready.
"If you do it the other way, you end up having a transportation system that's always behind. There's such a connection between the two."
From my perspective, a compelling argument can be made for rail, and it has to be made if supporters expect to garner the support necessary to pass an initiative. If clearly drawn maps illustrate the initial routes and the future lines, people will believe in it. If a spending plan is easy to grasp and includes accountability, people will embrace it.
If they're presented a credible plan, people will get on board — and ride for a long time.
If not, that commute is going to just get longer — and more expensive.
That's all I'm saying.
Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at email@example.com or 226-3406.