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Tampa Bay's legislators aren't asking for state transportation money; a fractured approach doesn't help

TALLAHASSEE — Tampa Bay leaders aren't shy about proclaiming the need for more transportation dollars.

There's $1.2 billion of unfunded road projects in Pinellas County. That number climbs to more than $4 billion in Hillsborough.

Cash-starved transit agencies in both counties spend less per resident than counterparts almost anywhere else nationwide.

Local officials have considered everything from raising the sales tax to using BP oil spill settlement money to plug Tampa Bay's growing transportation gap. Yet as they've scrambled to fill the void, Tampa Bay's state lawmakers have taken a pass.

Those extra buses this region sorely needs? No House or Senate member has asked for them. The expensive widening of Lithia-Pinecrest Road in Brandon? Not on the list.

Legislators around the state asked for more than $700 million in transportation projects next year. The state's two biggest counties, Miami-Dade and Broward, together asked for about $50 million.

But legislators in Pinellas asked for a paltry $6.2 million. In Hills­borough, the state's fourth most populated county, lawmakers managed to request only $1.9 million in transportation projects.

In the competitive world of infrastructure, where every dollar counts for a region ranked at the bottom for its traffic and transit, not seeking state money is a missed opportunity, said Michael Case of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.

"Even though it might not go anywhere and they might not get the funding, this is discretionary funding set aside every year," Case said. "They need to leverage every single opportunity that they get."

As millions of dollars that could shorten commutes bypass Tampa Bay, some blame age-old rivalries that pit counties, cities and transportation agencies against each other in the hunt for dollars, leading to more gridlock.

"We have no vision," said Senate Transportation Appropriations Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. "In Tampa Bay, we haven't built that foundation yet."

Falling behind

About $10 billion flows through the Florida Department of Transportation every year.

Lawmakers can request this money for a specific project and hope that it gets included in the state budget. Or local elected leaders vote on projects that land a spot on the DOT's five-year work program — which is then included in the budget.

In both methods, Tampa Bay falls short.

A review of recent state budgets found that Pinellas and Hills­borough receive tens of millions less for transportation each year than similar-sized counties.

Although the general appropriations bill doesn't outline all of the state's transportation spending (such as operating costs or projects that cost less than a million), it includes major projects requested by legislators and those included in the DOT work program. The bill provides a measure of how successful each county is at securing money for road, pedestrian and transit projects.

In 2015-2016, for instance, Miami-Dade, Duval, Broward, Citrus, Orange and Palm Beach counties all received at least $50 million more for roads and transit than Hillsborough County, which received $185 million from the state.

Pinellas was even worse off, getting about $142 million that year. That ranks closer to counties like St. Lucie, whose 286,000 population is about a quarter that of Pinellas.

Things improved for Pinellas this year when it landed a whopper: $330 million for Gateway Express. The project is an offshoot to Tampa Bay Express, the state's controversial transportation plan to bring 100 miles of toll lanes to the region.

But for Hillsborough, the disparity with other regions grows over time. Over the last three years, Orange, Broward and Duval all received at least $500 million more than Hillsborough. Miami-Dade, which has double Hillsborough's population, received nearly $2.5 billion from the state for transportation projects. Hillsborough netted just over $500 million.

That gap could widen even more because, as this year's state budget requests show, other regions are pursuing dollars more aggressively than Hillsborough or Pinellas.

Almost half the amount of this year's legislative requests — $328 million — is for a single toll road project connecting Clay and St. John's counties, which have a combined population that's a fraction of either Pinellas or Hillsborough. The remaining requests, or about $380 million, are for 120 projects throughout the state.

Lawmakers from midsized Volusia want $27 million to widen roads and make airport improvements. Legislators in Escambia and Lake — each with populations under 400,000 — are each seeking about $15 million to pay for transportation needs.

Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Hollywood, asked for nearly $700,000 in next year's budget to pay for crosswalks, bike lanes, street lighting and buses. Broward legislators asked for a total of more than $22 million in transportation projects — 10 times what Hillsborough asked and three times the requests made by Pinellas.

"If there is a way to petition the government to get funds for your community, I don't know why you wouldn't at least attempt to get money for it," Jenne said. "The worst thing that can happen is they say no."

Divided across the bay

Several Tampa Bay officials blamed the region's lack of unity for the inertia.

For instance, Pinellas and Hills­borough each have their own transit agencies, when most major metro areas have one.

Tampa Bay is also dramatically different from other regions in the country, which tend to have only one Metropolitan Planning Organization (the entity that puts together transportation plans). This puts Tampa Bay at a competitive disadvantage, said Rick Homans, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional group focused on economic development.

"You can see how fractured it is," Homans said. "It's incredibly inefficient."

So as other regions have legislative delegations that work together for a common cause, Tampa Bay has a delegation of lawmakers who represent rival agencies. Homans said a DOT official told him that he finds himself acting as a referee trying to manage competing interests from each county.

"If there was one regional MPO, (DOT) could much easier take direction from that," Homans said. "It would prioritize the regional projects and the big asks from Tampa Bay."

Back in the 1970s, Tampa Bay leaders decided to manage growth by conducting planning on a county-by-county basis. The area's cities hadn't grown into a contiguous region like they have now. As a result, parochialism inspired separate bureaucratic domains.

Even today, only one major agency, Tampa Bay Water, represents more than one county. Such cultural and institutional separatism poses real political challenges, said freshman Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, especially in an area with such sprawling geography and interests.

GrayRobinson lobbyist Chris Carmody, who represents Orlando's transit agency, said having one MPO in a region certainly makes it easier to vie for money. A single central planning group allows the involved counties, cities and leaders to align on issues and form a core unit. That's what happened with SunRail in Orlando.

The commuter rail line opened in May 2014, seven years after the city of Orlando and Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Volusia counties voted on and approved the project.

"Every county, every city who was involved signed off on it," Carmody said. "There's accountability when there are multiple partners who can back it up."

Carmody, who once lobbied for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, didn't comment on what choices Tampa Bay agencies make. But he did say it gets complicated when a region is so fragmented.

"There's inevitably going to be competition for those funds," Carmody said. "I can imagine a scenario where that would hurt one agency's chances over the others."

Diamond, who served on the PSTA board before he was elected state representative last year, said transportation issues in Tampa Bay come down to two issues: planning and funding.

"And the planning side's not working," Diamond said. "We will never be able to make the progress we want until we take a regional approach."

Hoping for unification

Some lawmakers are betting on unity.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, filed bills to transform the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority into a regional transit entity that would coordinate plans across four counties.

"It helps if you have an organized agency," Latvala said. "We get state money for HART and for PSTA, but it's not a coordinated multi-county approach."

Latvala has tried for years to change this by suggesting Hills­borough and Pinellas transit agencies merge. While Pinellas was receptive to the idea, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority pushed back hard against Latvala.

Several transit lobbyists said that clash made it much more difficult for HART to get dollars for projects — including the regional bus ticketing system that the agency listed as its No. 1 legislative priority for three straight years. HART hoped the state would pay for about $6 million of the $12 million for the system. The Legislature shot down the request each time.

During that same period, lawmakers approved $9 million for express buses in Miami-Dade, $8 million for a streetcar in downtown Fort Lauderdale and $10 million for a bus transfer facility in Jacksonville.

Latvala is now chairman of the Senate budget committee. He's also the sponsor of one of the only transit-related bills this session. His TBARTA bill replaces the word "Transportation" with "Transit" and changes the governance of the board to include more appointed members from businesses.

While the bill is a step in the right direction, Diamond said, what really needs to happen is the creation of a regional MPO. State and federal dollars flow through these planning groups, which is what makes having a regional MPO so critical.

"The first step really is merging the MPOs," Brandes said. "We need to get our house in order."

HART CEO Katharine Eagan said having so many separate agencies from the same area asking for money means those requests are smaller in size with fewer champions pushing them. A regional planning group would better focus Tampa Bay so it could compete with other regions.

But with the way things are now, the transit agencies for Hills­borough and Pinellas each have separate lobbyists. Add those lobbying for the counties and cities pushing for different projects, and Tampa Bay's delegation is destined to be divided by its dueling loyalties.

"If you had a unified MPO, you probably wouldn't see that," Eagan said. "As it is now, we're all competing for attention."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

Tampa Bay's legislators aren't asking for state transportation money; a fractured approach doesn't help 03/24/17 [Last modified: Saturday, March 25, 2017 10:14pm]
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