TAMPA — How bad is commuting in the Tampa Bay region?
The worst in the nation, according to Forbes.com, which ranks it last among 60 major metropolitan areas.
Sure, it takes longer for people in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago to get to work. But they have more transportation options, including public transit, bicycling and walking, and more people carpool.
Advocates of a proposed sales tax to pay for transportation improvements in Hillsborough County, including light rail, say the report is further evidence the tax is necessary.
"When you're dead last, it's hard to argue with the case we've been making, which is commuters are suffering in this area and we've got to do something," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "It's a terrible calling card for the business community. You've got Forbes out there saying we're last, and we're trying to attract businesses? Case closed."
In Pinellas County, some officials were skeptical of the Forbes report.
"I would not have rated us as low as that," said Brian Smith, planning director for Pinellas County. "It does not make sense."
Other metro areas have worse traffic, and the area's average commute is a little more than 20 minutes, he said. Pinellas officials have never received complaints about commutes, he said.
Hillsborough County commissioners are expected to vote next month on whether to ask voters to consider a sales tax to pay for rail, road improvements, expanded bus service and biking and walking trails.
"We need the transit referendum to pass," said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. "We are a community that has so many assets, but we fall miserably short when it comes to transportation."
Others say commuting can be improved without raising taxes.
The recent expansions of Interstate 275 and Interstate 4 should have included lanes for high-occupancy vehicles, said Sam Rashid, a Brandon businessman.
"There are some basic things our transportation people can start looking at," he said. "They just never, ever pushed some of these basic concepts."
Alan Snel, executive director of South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers, said Tampa needs to show more of a commitment to bicyclists when repaving or doing construction on city roads.
"Tampa's roads can be navigated, but you have to be on top of your game and have some decent technical skills," he said. "The roads are engineered almost exclusively for cars, and not for bicycles."
Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, who has long argued for more walkable, bike-friendly streets, said city transportation officials need to change their thinking.
"The idea is every time you build a street or redo one, you make sure there are bike lanes, that there are safe places for pedestrians" said Saul-Sena, who supports the proposed sales tax. "I'm really happy that Forbes, which is an objective national news source, recognized that we have a lot of work to do in this area. For us to be dead last is not where we need to be as a smart, sustainable community."
Joe Kubicki, St. Petersburg's director of transportation, said the rankings may be misleading because they lump St. Petersburg in with the rest of the metropolitan area.
"We have wide flowing boulevards and in many cases we don't experience peak-time traffic congestion that other cities do," Kubicki said. "We should rank near the top on the list for good travel conditions."
In the past six years, St. Petersburg has seen a 40 percent drop in accidents involving bikes on city roads, Kubicki said. During that same period, he said, the city has built 100 miles of bike lanes and six miles of bike trails. The city has half the pedestrian accident rate than the rest of Tampa Bay, he said.
"We could do a better job," Kubicki said. "But I know we're not the worst."
Times staff writers David DeCamp and Michael VanSickler contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.