Wednesday, May 23, 2018
News Roundup

Romano: Bet you'd like to ride me out on a rail — except we don't have any

Did you catch the special report on public transit in the Tampa Bay Times this weekend?

Fascinating stuff, right? It took a boring topic and brought it to life with numbers, research and anecdotes. If you missed it, I highly recommend you look it up.

In the meantime, I'll sum it up for you in three words:

Dang, we're abnormal.

Not just a little different, or slightly out of step. When it comes to mass transit, the Tampa Bay area is flirting with an off-the-charts approach compared to the rest of the country.

It should be no surprise that we have fewer transit options and riders than most larger cities. But did you know we also have fewer than almost every similar-sized city? And even some smaller cities?

To me, it suggests that one of three possibilities are at play here.

1. By declining to invest more in mass transit options, we are head-and-shoulders smarter than all these cities that have spent beaucoup bucks on buses, trains and light rail.

2. Our geography and demographics are so vastly different from every other city that it doesn't make sense to invest in bigger and better transit options.

3. We're stupid.

There are, of course, no right or wrong answers. Depending on how you feel about mass transit as a community investment will determine whether you think we've been shortsighted or shrewd.

And our mix of retirees, tourists, bridges and weather does make Tampa Bay unique compared to, say, a Charlotte or a St. Louis or other similarly populated markets.

So, really, the question is this:

Is Tampa Bay a more attractive place because of its less-than-normal mass transit options?

I can tell you how a lot of business leaders answer that. Lightning owner Jeff Vinik says the lack of mass transit holds us back. Rays owner Stu Sternberg agrees. So does former Raymond James Financial CEO Tom James. So do the heads of our biggest chamber of commerce groups.

I can also tell you how a lot of lower-income residents would likely answer that. More transit options would make it easier for them to find jobs and potentially pull themselves out of poverty.

Finally, I can tell you that a lot of residents believe rail systems are taxpayer boondoggles pushed by ambitious politicians that cost too much and don't get enough ridership to justify their existence.

And there are truths in every one of those arguments.

But does that mean all the arguments are equal?

There is something to be said for a community that invests in itself. For a community that can see farther down the road than next year. For a community that understands that not every person has to ride a bus or train to eventually derive some benefit from having increased amenities.

And it's true we could argue all day about costs or ridership numbers or routes, and never come to any agreement because there are statistics to support every point of view.

This, however, remains indisputable:

Tampa Bay has exploded as a region. In 1970, the combined population of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties was barely more than 1 million. Today, it is approaching 3 million. We are now on par with some of the largest and most attractive metro areas in the nation.

Even if we don't always act like them.

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