Gov. Charlie Crist signed legislation last month that promises to drive transportation into the 21st century. The key is to approach the issue on a regional level: not just Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, but the entire seven-county metropolitan area that can provide a high-quality network of high-speed rail, commuter rail and improved roads.
The new state law should make it easier to get federal money to build a high-speed rail system. The state is seeking $2.5 billion from Washington to start building a high-speed rail system that would first link Orlando and Tampa and later add a connection to Miami.
The best news for the Tampa Bay area is that it already has extensive transportation plans in place. Add our ideal location, and we find ourselves in a good position for funding for light rail as the project gets started. It is expected that there will be approximately $60 million available annually beginning in 2014.
The law also paves the way for a state purchase from CSX Corp. of 61 miles of existing rail tracks for SunRail, which will connect four Central Florida counties. SunRail will make travel easier in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties and could eventually serve travelers from Jacksonville to Tampa.
The law also increases the state funding for road improvements for small counties from 5 percent to 10 percent in 2014. And it creates the Florida Rail Enterprise to oversee the rail systems within the state Department of Transportation.
Reflective of the more than two years of regional planning by the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, the big-picture perspective of this new law paves the way for real solutions. It's not a matter of being able to afford these upgrades to our transportation system. Considering that delay on our roadways is expected to increase 300 percent in our region by 2030, we cannot afford to ignore transportation issues and the need for rail. The 2000 census shows approximately 44,000 commuter trips daily from Pinellas to Hillsborough County, and approximately 25,200 from Hillsborough to Pinellas. The numbers have grown significantly over the past decade.
Pinellas County has served an essential role in the fast-track planning of TBARTA. The Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization has provided support to development of the long-term vision as reflected in the master plan.
The MPO's 2035 Long Range Transportation Plan adopted in December laid the groundwork for moving forward with the local transit initiatives in coordination with the regional and statewide plans. The MPO's plan includes proposed rail and enhanced bus service that will serve Pinellas County residents and visitors and also provide connections to Hillsborough, Manatee and Pasco counties. Working with TBARTA, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and the state, the MPO has prioritized and allocated funding to evaluate alternatives for planned rail service connecting downtown Clearwater, the Gateway area and downtown St. Petersburg with a connection to Hillsborough County via the I-275/Howard Frankland Bridge corridor.
The Pinellas County rail project is also one of TBARTA's top priorities. The planned rail service connection from Pinellas County to Hillsborough County will provide access for Pinellas County residents to the planned High Speed Rail System to Orlando and other areas of the state.
Imagine a network linking rail with roads, airports and seaports. Imagine being able to use a rail system to quickly travel to a football or baseball game, to the beaches, to Tampa and to Orlando. Congestion will decrease, the service across the bay will improve, tourism and daily commuter traffic will flow — in short, our lives will be better. And better transportation will feed our economy as jobs are created, daily commuters are more willing to travel to and from Pinellas County, and tourists find an easy ride to the attractions and our beaches from Tampa, Orlando and beyond.
Karen Williams Seel is a member of the Pinellas County Commission.