Brian Willis sold his car when he moved from the Tampa Bay area to Washington, D.C., for law school. He took public transportation everywhere. When he moved back to take a job at a law firm, he found a place six blocks from a bus station. Yet now he mostly drives to work.
He found that the buses stopped running after 6 p.m. and though they picked him up near his home, they dropped him off about a mile away.
"I came back here and realized there was something that was missing in this area," Willis said. "We didn't have an option for people who didn't want to have a car for every person in their household, or couldn't afford to. We were telling those people: Don't come here."
Willis, 29, is one of four young professionals determined to change that. They formed an organization, Connect Tampa Bay, to build a movement of mass transit advocates in a region that loves to build roads. The group, which held its first fundraiser last month, counts Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn among its supporters and plans to meet with commissioners in both counties. The goal is to convince elected officials and voters that the area needs — and should pay for — more bus routes and a commuter light-rail system.
Its founding members are Brian Seel, a construction manager for the Beck Group (and son of Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel); Brandie Miklus, an urban planner for Jacobs Engineering; Kevin Thurman, a former Democratic political consultant and recent transplant from D.C.; and Willis, a lawyer at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick.
Their stories are similar. Around the same time that Willis returned to Tampa, Miklus, 31, moved from Tallahassee to Tampa Bay, where she spent her weekends testing out the bus system.
"It was a larger city and it was so much harder to get around," she said.
Seel, 28, grew up in Clearwater and moved to Tampa after earning a graduate degree in construction management. His studies had piqued his interest in public transit, and he returned about the same time that Hillsborough County began debating a sales tax increase to pay for a major investment in transit.
While Connect Tampa Bay was started in December, it's an outgrowth of a group Seel and Willis founded in 2010 to motivate young professionals to support the Hillsborough plan, which would have built a commuter rail running through Tampa.
The group lost its momentum when Hillsborough voters rejected the referendum by 58 to 42 percent. But Seel, Willis and Miklus never stopped talking and, two years later, when Pinellas County began talking about expanding its bus routes and building light rail, they reconvened.
In the meantime, Willis had met Thurman, 32, who had followed his girlfriend to Tampa and immediately embraced the city, throwing himself into efforts to save the Friendship Trail Bridge. Now, he is the group's executive director and its chief — unpaid, for now — evangelist.
"What we're trying to do is increase the amount of public engagement," Thurman said recently.
Ginning up the youth vote is one arm of his plan. "I'm going to organize and turn out every person under 35," he said.
Another part is an education campaign aimed at everyone else — seniors who take the bus to doctors' appointments, residents who love their cars but would pay for less-congested highways, and business owners intrigued by the prospect of more foot traffic.
Thurman is also planning a series of gatherings in people's homes — low-key information sessions where neighbors can chat about public transportation over sweet tea. His goal is 50 meetings in 250 days. Pinellas County is likely to vote on a sales tax increase to fund transit, including light rail, in November 2014.
Conventional wisdom has it that Hillsborough won't support light rail and many Pinellas County residents are just as skeptical.
But that may be changing. A poll sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay, published in December, found that 56 percent of Hillsborough residents surveyed answered "yes" when asked if they would support spending public or tax money to bring light rail to parts of the Tampa Bay area. In Pinellas, 60 percent said yes.
"I think the support is there," Seel said. "The biggest obstacle is civic engagement. If you talk to a lot of people offhand, they'll say they're in favor of this type of growth … but they don't really know how to effect change."
Seel's mother, the county commissioner, isn't as certain. Though she and her son are both "big supporters of mass transit," she has said she will oppose putting a tax increase before voters in 2014. The economy hasn't improved quickly enough, she has said.
"The reason I'm against the referendum is because of the timing," she said.
Willis said he thinks the region is ready for light rail. In the five years since he moved back to Tampa, attitudes have begun to change. He has seen movement in the past few months.
"Can Hillsborough do it in 2014?" is the question he said he hears now that talk is picking up in Pinellas.
"Maybe we've hit that tipping point," he said. "It's a different place than it was when I grew up."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.