Thursday, April 19, 2018
Politics

Regional leaders talk transportation in Tampa

TAMPA — U.S. Rep. John Mica set a foreboding tone in his videotaped message Thursday to the more than 200 attendees of the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Summit.

The Winter Park Republican said Tampa Bay is about to be known as only the second of the nation's 30 largest metropolitan areas without fixed transit — meaning commuter rail. The other is northern Kentucky, which has topographical challenges.

"The bad news for the Tampa Bay regional area is, you haven't done anything," Mica said, before trying to sound a more optimistic note. "The good news is you haven't screwed it up yet."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe organized Thursday's summit at Tampa International Airport, which included planners and civic leaders from Orlando to St. Petersburg, Sarasota to Manatee County. He is seeking to spur action on using all forms of transportation to link those areas and foster development of an economic super region.

What he heard was that each of the counties represented is moving forward — some in collaboration, some on their own — in seeking to develop multiple forms of transportation, regardless of what Hillsborough is doing.

Attendees heard from a representative of the SunRail Commuter Line, the project under construction that will ultimately link Volusia County and Osceola County with Orlando International Airport. By using existing rail lines, the first phase of the project has taken just a few years to complete and the first 32 miles should open in the spring.

That will be great timing because, as MetroPlan Orlando Executive Director Harry Barley told those in attendance, the stretch of Interstate 4 that travels along the rail line is about to get a major 21-mile, six-year overhaul. Private contractors will be installing toll lanes aimed at through traffic, taking pressure off local commuters but causing jams in the meantime.

Meanwhile, Florida East Coast Industries vice president Rusty Roberts outlined his company's plans to build a privately financed and operated higher-speed commuter line between Orlando and Miami. He made no mention of extending to it Tampa.

The summit also included presentations from backers of Greenlight Pinellas, a referendum proposal that would create rail, roadwork and a large expansion of bus service in that built-out peninsula if passed in 2014. Polk County officials outlined their own proposal for a referendum to benefit transit next year.

Hillsborough County elected officials have been meeting for months to discuss ways to better tie transportation decisions based on how much they spark economic development. They have yet to start talking about specific proposals.

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