TAMPA — The importance of having a regional approach to transportation was something on which everyone agreed Thursday night.
But the consensus broke down when the four elected officials on an Emerge Tampa Bay town hall panel were asked whether the bay area's transportation solution should include light rail.
Yes, said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and City Council member Lisa Montelione. Maybe, but it's too early to say, Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman said.
It depends, said state Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa. He said he doesn't necessarily expect a rail system to run a surplus, but he thinks it's vital that there's a clear case made to voters about how it would benefit them even if they never venture downtown.
"How do you convey to a stay-at-home mother of four in Odessa that light rail in downtown is good for her?" he told the crowd of more than 100 young professionals at the University of Tampa.
The message, Buckhorn said, is that rail will help the Tampa Bay area attract more employers and more jobs.
"I think we are far less competitive as a region and certainly as a city by the absence of mass transit and rail in particular," he said. "We are doing well, but we could do so much more. That investment in rail, as big as it is, pales in comparison to the investment that occurs as a result of the rail being there around the rail lines and rail stops."
But timing is critical, Buckhorn said. The Florida Department of Transportation, he noted, is expected to include rebuilding and widening the Howard Frankland Bridge in an upcoming five- to 10-year work plan.
If the bay area is ever to connect Pinellas and Hillsborough counties by rail, having a corridor included as part of that project is key, he said.
Murman said making sure "we do this right" is why a discussion that started this month involving the county, Hillsborough's three cities and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit is so important. The key question, she said, is deciding how to pay for improvements before moving forward.