Friday, December 15, 2017

Ruth: Talking (again) about Tampa Bay transit

It's entirely possible you have a few thoughts about the nature of transportation in Tampa Bay. Unfortunately, this is a family newspaper, so we can't actually cite them in print, or in a church, or even at Thanksgiving dinner.

But you can vent your spleen a bit at 5:30 p.m. today at the Tampa Bay History Center, when the public can offer up ideas about the future of transportation in the region. Pasco residents weighed in earlier this week, and Pinellas County residents will get their turn on Tuesday at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority offices.

I've been giving a lot of thought to transit. Goodness knows I have the time, sitting and sitting (and muttering) in all the congestion on I-275 on the way to work every morning.

Recently a friend who lives near my house in North Tampa delivered the happy news that she had just been hired for a job in St. Petersburg. When do you start, I asked her. Next week, she said, asking what is a good time to begin her commute. I replied: "You should leave right now."

It's that bad and it is only going to get worse, until the citizenry finally awakens to the notion you simply cannot get there from here or anywhere by car without dedicating hours of your life to sitting behind a wheel.

No doubt attendees at the public hearings will offer up perfectly reasonable suggestions to create light rail connections between Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties linking the University of South Florida, Tampa International Airport, the downtowns of Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa, and other areas.

Bus routes need to be improved and expanded, including express service. And the ferry experiment earlier this year between Tampa and St. Petersburg suggested the ferries could be a terrific added plus.

As for driverless cars, count me out. But then again, when it comes to technical stuff, you're dealing with a guy who didn't trust ATM machines for the first 10 years or so they were in existence and still can't figure out how to exit from Netflix. But go ahead. Have a nice time.

Think of all of that as a sort of "Duh!" moment. But the input is crucial for Jacobs Engineering to craft a coherent transit plan.

Still, for all the obvious fixes for our transit woes, the very best intentions of the participants in the hearings, and the fine folks at Jacobs Engineering, please forgive a bit a skepticism over this exercise in civic engagement.

No matter what Jacobs eventually recommends, you still have to pay for it, and that tab will run well into the billions of dollars.

We have been having this transportation dialogue for decades in Tampa Bay and absolutely nothing comes of it, except expanding the interstates, which only leads to more gridlock. That's not a recipe for the future. It is myopia.

It matters little what members of the public showing up at these town halls think. It matters little what grand plan Jacobs Engineering devises unless you can figure out a reliable funding source — and that means tax increases.

As we have seen, while cities like Tampa and St. Petersburg have generally supported various tax increases to pay for improved public transportation, these initiatives are invariably doomed at the ballot box by those fussbudget county residents who see little value in paying for something they believe they will never use.

So while these transportation events are very nice in providing the veneer of a community contribution to a critical civic issue, not much is likely to change.

Unless …

The Florida Legislature has been reluctant to allow cities to hold their own tax referendums to finance transportation needs without those grumpy curmudgeons in the county blowing everything up.

It's not Jacobs Engineering the public needs to be talking to, although the pocket protector types are surely lovely people.

If the attendees at these meetings want to see this community finally enter the 21st century in terms of transportation, they need to take their case (the louder, the better) to the Florida Legislature's Tampa Bay delegation to lobby for city transit taxing authority.

A good place to start would be in the ear of House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Pasco County, who wants to be governor. Yes, transportation is expensive. But you could convince Corcoran that improving transportation might just pave the way to higher office.

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