TAMPA — Something feels different about transportation discussions lately, local leaders say.
It was highlighted at a Cafe Con Tampa event Friday morning where representatives from the Florida Department of Transportation's local office and Hillsborough's bus agency spoke together about plans for transit in Tampa Bay.
The two agencies have partnered on a two-year study to identify a plausible transit solution for the region. DOT paid for the $1.5 million study that the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is overseeing.
The fact that they're working together — and engaging in the community conversation together — is what stuck out to transportation planners and former politicians Friday.
For decades, agencies like FDOT and HART mostly operated in silos, said Ray Chiaramonte executive director of Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority. They would keep each other informed of plans, but more to make sure they weren't stepping on each others toes than to actually coordinate. Regional partnerships were talked about, but little came of them.
"It was just a dream before," Chiaramonte said.
But now, Chiaramonte said, it seems like DOT, HART and other transportation groups in the area are teaming up in a more substantial way. DOT and HART's partnerships on transit studies is one example of it. The Legislature passing a law this year that repurposed TBARTA to develop a regional transit plan is another.
Then there's the ongoing discussion about whether to combine the area's county transportation planning groups, known as Metropolitan Planning Organization, into one massive regional entity, like in Orlando.
"There's real momentum here now," said transit advocate and former Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe.
It says a lot about a region that having DOT and HART representatives working together is noteworthy. And it's something other areas have been better at, HART Chief Executive Officer Katharine Eagan said during the question-and-answer element of Friday's event. She listed Dallas, Phoenix and others as examples.
"We are very balkanized in Florida," Eagan said. "When I leave the state and tell people our planning is county specific, they say, 'But that's just county planning, that's not regional. It's not long range.'"
Eagan said HART has "increasingly found a good partner" in DOT when it comes to funding studies. The bus agency also has a pilot program with other Tampa Bay counties so that riders can use one fare card for multiple bus agencies, making crossing county lines less of a headache.
"Whether or not we think we're a region, the feds think we are, Amazon thinks we are, potentially the Rays think we are," Eagan said "It's time to put on the big people outfit... and act like a region"
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.