ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Bay's mayors are among the most vocal voices when it comes to transportation — but their powers to affect change are very limited.
In Florida, only counties have the ability to put a referenda on the ballot asking voters to raise the sales tax to pay for roads, buses and other transportation needs. All transportation planning is run through the Metropolitan Planning Organizations, which function on a county level. And ultimately the Florida Department of Transportation is responsible for implementing large scale projects.
Still, in recent years Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman have been outspoken advocates for solving one of the region's most pressing issues.
But now a third mayor has entered the picture: former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who is challenging Kriseman.
St. Petersburg's two mayors vary greatly in how they approach the subject and what solutions they see for the area's traffic and transit struggles. That's why a change in City Hall on one side of the bay could change the way the Tampa Bay region approaches this issue.
Kriseman spent his tenure as mayor out in front of many of St. Petersburg's transit issues: most notably, Greenlight Pinellas — the county's failed 2014 attempt to raise the sales tax a penny to pay for transit and expanded bus service — and a pilot ferry program earlier this year that connected the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa.
When asked if he supported Greenlight, Baker said the "strength" of the plan was express buses. The Tampa Bay Times emailed his campaign to ask if he supported the transportation referendum itself. But the Baker campaign did not answer the question.
Instead, the former mayor said he spent his time in office from 2001-10 focused on roads: working with DOT to redo sidewalks and add crosswalks along Fourth Street, landscaping the area under overpasses and seeking to improve north-south corridors in the county.
Kriseman is a strong proponent of lobbying Tallahassee to allow cities to hold their own transportation referendums. Such measures have proven popular in urban areas but are often defeated because the exurbs often vote against them.
He and Buckhorn believe that would help cities pay for their own light rails systems, though the idea has failed to garner any substantial support from legislators.
Baker, however, is lukewarm to the concept. The former mayor said he isn't against the idea, but he's hesitant to move forward on a transit plan without the support of the rest of the county.
"The preference would be to have a plan that the whole county could agree on," Baker said. "I think the regional approach is the best approach."
Here's how the two former mayors stack up on other transportation issues:
Did you support Greenlight Pinellas?
Baker: "I think the strength of it was the bus rapid transit system … At the end of the day, the community decided they didn't want to do it."
Kriseman: "I was certainly incredibly disappointed that it didn't pass. Not having it pass was a set back."
Do you support merging county transportation planning groups into one regional organization?
Baker: "I think there has to be regional discussion … The key will be what is the composition, how does it work and what powers does it have."
Kriseman: "It's not something that should be completely ruled out, but it also has some challenges that would take time to work through … If you're going to do a regional organization, how does that impact county wide planning?"
Do you support building a light rail system that would link Tampa Bay?
Baker: "I think if it's the right plan and the right cost, you can convince people the benefits are worth the cost."
Kriseman: "Light rail should be one of our options. I don't think it's the solution to all of our problems, but I think it's part of the solution."
Do you support bringing the Cross Bay Ferry back for another season?
Baker: "I'd like to wait and see what the federal government's response is and if they'd be willing to fund it … It didn't appear to be something people used for transit."
Kriseman: "I think the future is bright for the ferry … My intention is definitely to work with my partner governments again to bring back at least the seasonal service until a permanent option is ready."
Do you support toll lanes as proposed in DOT's Tampa Bay Next plan? The cost of these toll lanes, which would be on Interstates 275, 75 and 4, would rise and fall based on demand.
Baker: "I think toll lanes can be good in certain places. I don't like the idea of taking away existing lanes and making them toll lanes. But the Gateway project we've been working on will be a new road and will make sure there is an alternative, non-toll route."
Kriseman: "I'm more comfortable if there's more certainty in the pricing and you don't see surge pricing. That's just crazy. The only people who can afford it are those who are more financially well off and everyone else is stuck in traffic. That doesn't seem, on it's face, fairly equitable."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.