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Region is ripe for mass transition from the car

Bill Smith used to think the only transportation he needed was his Ford F-150 pickup.

But with southbound traffic on Interstate 75 sometimes backed up to State Road 54 during morning rush hours and gasoline prices setting a record high this week, he can almost picture himself boarding a bus to Tampa.

"Or a train. That would probably be better,'' said Smith, 48, of Spring Lake, who owns a billboard company. "Or maybe even hitchhike if I have to.''

If even a confirmed truck guy such as Smith is open to alternative forms of transportation, open enough to attend a transportation workshop at the Hernando County Government Center, then maybe we are in the midst of a profound change.

Maybe, finally, our sprawling section of the state is ready for one of the hallmarks of a real urban area — regional mass transit.

It almost felt that way Tuesday evening at the open house held by the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority, a newly formed agency aiming to connect a seven-county area from Citrus to Sarasota with trains or express buses.

Usually, when such an idea comes up in Florida, you hear why it can't be done: the state's scattered pattern of development; the expense; a culture that values car ownership and looks down on walkers and bus riders.

Which is why Florida's voter-mandated high-speed rail system has gone nowhere, and why the county's underused transit system, THE Bus, has become a prime flak catcher for cut-the-budget advocates.

But this is what happened on Tuesday:

Residents gathered around flip charts, firing off suggestions for future routes. Don Lacey, vice president of Coastal Engineering Associates, explained how Europe finances public transportation with gas taxes that also discourage driving.

County transportation coordinator Dennis Dix said that if we want mass transit in future decades, we need to start planning it now.

What changed? Mainly, we've seen that relying on roads, and only roads, won't work forever. Not only are the highways to Tampa backed up, but even small improvements to our road network have become stunningly expensive; $54.3 million, for example, to buy right of way and build 2.5 miles of County Line Road.

"The hardest way to increase capacity is to build roads,'' said county Commissioner David Russell.

The state Legislature began creating regional transportation authorities several years ago because they are eligible for large pools of federal funds, said Russell, who worked on this effort as a state representative.

They also have the power to issue bonds they will pay back with tolls or fares, said Bob Clifford of the state Department of Transportation, who is helping draw up a master plan for the authority due next year.

The heart of this system would be what he calls "spines'' — main rail or express bus routes between population centers — supplemented by beefed-up local transit systems, he said.

And yes, he said, it really is possible for the Tampa Bay area to graduate into the same league as other sprawling cities, including Dallas and Denver, which now have rail systems.

"We absolutely can do it,'' Clifford said.

Region is ripe for mass transition from the car 03/12/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2008 2:10pm]
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