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Transit chief takes long view

At a time when the rest of us are collectively thinking, "How am I going to afford Christmas?" Robert Clifford is shopping for high-speed buses and trains.

In a manner of speaking.

Clifford is the new executive director of TBARTA, a regional transit planning agency for a seven-county area surrounding Tampa Bay.

Is there money for rail? Not just yet. But Clifford is convinced, and his agency's surveys back him up, that people are sick of sitting in traffic and sicker of having no alternatives.

He's also convinced, and he is working to convince others, that the only way the bay area can keep up with competing markets when it comes to economic development is to offer more transportation choices.

"If you cannot provide mobility for people and goods, you cannot grow economically," he says.

Clifford was making the rounds Monday night at a workshop in one of the theater rooms at the Carrollwood Cultural Center.

While the pictures of trains and smart buses — the kind that trigger traffic signals — looked as fantastic as the stage scenery behind them, Clifford sees the issue this way:

Two years ago, the nation's interstate highway system celebrated its 50th anniversary. These highways were not built all at once, but piecemeal, amid similar skepticism.

"People were saying, 'We're not going to be able to use it,' and, 'I'll never see it.' It was the same conversation. But what would this nation be without its highway system? This is, to me, the next interstate system."

The process works like this:

Over the past year TBARTA (which stands for Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority) has put on presentations at about 300 events, soliciting ideas from close to 10,000 residents of an area stretching from Citrus County to Sarasota. Workshops similar to Monday's were held Tuesday in downtown Tampa and Nov. 13 at Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon.

Some of the funding for their research came from a $2-million state grant, but much of the work is performed by other agencies, such as the Florida Department of Transportation.

In February, the TBARTA board hopes to approve a master plan that will serve as a blueprint for the next 50 years.

That's when they will need serious money – "in the B's, not M's," Clifford said.

The effort has been well received by economic development organizations, chambers of commerce and politicians such as Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan.

Just what is built will vary from county to county. In Citrus County, Clifford said, people would be thrilled to have a park-and-ride for an express bus into Tampa. Hillsborough County lends itself to a greater variety of systems; such as highway lanes that are dedicated to high-speed buses.

Clifford, who lives in Lutz, said he would have loved to hop a train to a Tampa Bay Rays game in St. Petersburg.

And he never stops hearing New Tampa residents complain about their awful morning commutes.

A decision on what to build first is probably a year or two away, and expect eight years to pass before there is something we can ride on.

Still sounds crazy, right?

But consider one more statistic. The Tampa Bay area is among the top in the nation in the percentage of income people use for transportation. That's partly because our wages are low. And it's largely because we can't go anywhere without a car.

"We need to grow, but in the right way," Clifford said. "And transportation can help."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or [email protected]

Transit chief takes long view 11/20/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2008 3:30am]
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