This is what $32 million in economic stimulus money gets you:
A wider U.S. 41 through northern Land O'Lakes; nine buses and 50 shelters for passenger stops; two smaller-sized buses used for door-to-door paratransit service; and a bike trail connecting the Massachusetts Avenue/Congress Street intersection to Starkey Boulevard.
This is what it won't get you: $70,000 to add a new bus route serving the Moon Lake area.
That is the reality of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 when it comes to transportation in Pasco County. It is a common dilemma. The bricks and mortar dollars are available as one-time appropriations, but you're on your own for the operation costs. In Hernando County, for instance, they are debating whether to even accept the new buses because of the required commitment to keep them on the road for the next 10 years.
In Pasco, commissioners have twice delayed plans to begin mass transit to Moon Lake, connecting the largely blue-collar area to other north-south routes. And that was before the depths of the recession, falling property values and now a projected $30 million hole in the upcoming county budget. Expanded bus service is not likely to happen soon.
The local economic stimulus projects highlight the need for the mission undertaken by the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, TBARTA.
U.S. 41 is six lanes of asphalt through northern Hillsborough and southern Pasco counties, but narrows to two lanes at Tower Road, near Land O'Lakes High School. Morning commuters jockey with high school students and parents, school buses, rock trucks and other commercial traffic in a daily backup that stretches to Connerton. The scene is repeated in the northbound lane every afternoon as the work force traffic squeezes into a single lane as it makes its way home.
The often-delayed project is now targeted for $26 million in new federal money to widen nearly 3 miles of the highway to four lanes. It is needed. However, it's a short-term remedy to central Pasco's traffic congestion. A more viable long-term solution is an expanded mass transit service connecting Pasco to Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. That is the TBARTA mission.
The agency's near-term plans — think 20 years — call for express bus routes running along the Suncoast Parkway to the West Shore area of Tampa. Eventually, projections call for commuter rail service along the CSX lines and likely service connecting the Wiregrass Ranch area of Wesley Chapel to the University of South Florida and points southward. There also will be so-called managed lanes of traffic along Interstate 75.
But the key to the success of regional mass transit is a much more vigorous, vibrant local transit system, said TBARTA director Bob Clifford. Moving people from the train stations and bus depots to their jobs in the morning and to their homes in the evening will require tripling the local transportation network in the Tampa Bay region in terms of miles, hours of service and frequency of trips.
Mass transit, Clifford said, "is really all about economics, economic competitiveness and economic development." And, "we're talking about jobs, access to jobs."
Not the kind that comes with driving a nail with a hammer, but the kind of jobs that come with Fortune 500 companies. The kind of companies that might otherwise bypass a region that relies so heavily on traffic-choked roads as its primary method of transportation.
The Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan statistical area, which includes Pasco County, is the nation's 20th largest region. Of the top 30 metropolitan areas, it is the only one without a rail transit system. And the region is the fourth-highest in the country in terms of household expenses dedicated to transportation costs. That's what happens when the price of gasoline climbs and there are so few options besides getting in your car and driving.
Access to jobs, improved economic development and cutting individual household expenses. It is a prudent message that warrants an attentive audience.
But the hard questions will come down the road. Like that $70,000 that can't be located for Moon Lake mass transit, Pasco commissioners at some point must devise a way to finance expanded mass transit service.
Clifford points to the recent history of the rail systems in Charlotte, Phoenix and Denver for the answer. In other cities, Clifford said, the public enthusiasm builds after the initial projects get off the ground. The Denver region, for instance, is accelerating construction of 122 miles of rail lines and will add new bus routes after the positive response to the initial service in the downtown and other areas.
Success, Clifford said, alters the public debate. The initial question is: Should we do it? It later becomes: When can I get in?