Government leaders urge businesses to become transportation leaders

The bay area officials call for a focus on rail, not roads, and for a regional approach.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, left, St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos discussed the area's transportation needs at a panel Tuesday. CAITLIN JOHNSTON   |   Times
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, left, St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos discussed the area's transportation needs at a panel Tuesday.CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Times
Published June 7 2017

TAMPA — Political leaders from Tampa Bay's three biggest cities trumpeted transportation again as the region's most critical issue during a panel discussion Tuesday.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn called transportation the area's Achilles' heel and singled out rail as a much-needed option.

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said it's an embarrassment Tampa Bay hasn't moved yet on a transit plan.

St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice said local leaders need to be willing to work together for the good of the region, even if it doesn't directly benefit their own jurisdiction.

The discussion during CREW Tampa Bay's ninth annual Economic Summit echoes similar comments during recent years, but this time, the three politicians called for wider support and advocacy — both from commercial real estate developers in the room and the community as a whole.

Tampa Bay's transportation problems can't be tackled only by politicians and planners, Rice said. Others need to step up to the plate.

"We all have to be transportation leaders," Rice said. "We have to coalesce around a strategic regional vision of what we want for transportation, and we have to coalesce around local funding opportunities, which would be probably, frankly, some type of surtax."

Buckhorn urged those present to rally around a comprehensive transportation plan for the region. He chastised state legislators and other local officials for denying people the opportunity to vote on what they see as the future of transportation — a jab at the Hillsborough County Commission and its vote against putting a half-cent sales tax for transportation on the 2016 ballot.

He encouraged business leaders and developers to show their support for or opposition of their financial decisions, especially in election campaigns.

"Make sure you remind your elected officials when they come to you looking for checks that we've got to fix these problems," Buckhorn said.

He then took a couple of swings at small-government advocates and tea party members who have led persistent, fervent campaigns against public spending on transit, especially rail.

"We can't be silenced by a very small minority of agitators and dissenters and Internet trolls that continue to say that we don't need rail and we don't need mobility options and that, instead, we can build more roads to get out of this problem," Buckhorn said. "We absolutely cannot."

Rice, chairwoman of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, echoed Buckhorn's warning against a roads-only approach, calling for more transit and saying roads alone won't solve the problem.

She touted an upcoming project from the PSTA that will connect downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach with buses running every 15 minutes from 5 a.m. to midnight. The buses will run in dedicated lanes — outside regular traffic — during rush hour. The service is expected to launch within a couple of years.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.