The mayors of Tampa Bayís three biggest cities have once again declared that the lack of a robust transit system is the regionís most serious deficiency as it competes for new jobs and businesses. Terrific. Thatís like the star players sitting in the stands and complaining their team is being outplayed. A regional transit system that fuels a more diverse economy and a more attractive quality of life is never going to become a reality unless the mayors are more actively involved in making it happen.
Speaking at a Tampa luncheon last week, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the inability to advance the ball on transportation is "the biggest regret of my eight years, when I leave office in May." So much for anything happening over the next year. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said the region is at "a competitive disadvantage.íí But he did not make transit a key issue last year in his re-election campaign. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, who worked for years in Washington, raved about the businesses along the Metro route in the nationís capital. Yet the Tampa Bay area "canít get two counties together to decide what to do and how to do it to benefit all of us," he said. "Thatís an embarrassment."
So what are the big-city mayors going to do about it?
To his credit, Buckhorn urged again last week that light rail remain as a viable option and noted the lack of a local dedicated funding source for transit. He called for Hillsborough County to put a transportation package to a referendum in 2016, which the county commission declined. The mayors also have pushed for the Legislature to let cities, not only counties, ask voters to approve transit taxes.
But none of the mayors have made regional transit their top priority. Hills-boroughís transit plan in 2016 was too skewed toward road projects. It envisioned only a rail connection between downtown and Tampa International Airport, for which it had no route, no technology and virtually no funding. There was no plan for expanding rail across Tampa Bay. The Legislature has shown no interest in allowing cities to hold transit referendums. And Buckhorn and Kriseman were too quick to settle in January after local planners abruptly switched gears and endorsed a system of rapid buses instead of rail as the next step for regional transit service.
Itís understandable why the mayors are feeling transit fatigue after voters in both Pinellas and Hillsborough rejected transit referendums and other efforts did not take off. But none are taking a lead even on the plan thatís emerging ó rapid buses that would connect St. Petersburg, Tampa and Wesley Chapel. That initiative has been improved even as it still has a blend of strengths and significant weaknesses, and the revamped Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority is getting its footing. But unless the mayors get involved this step will be a product of consultants and the business community desperate to do something, anything.
The mayors also should collectively ask the candidates for governor what they would do for the Tampa Bay region. South Florida and Central Florida have enjoyed massive state support for mass transit. Now itís Tampa Bayís turn. How would the next governor support modern mass transit in this region, including both buses and rail? Candidates for Tampa mayor in 2019 need to offer concrete plans for transit ó and timetables for getting them done. Clearwater will elect a new mayor to succeed the term-limited Cretekos in 2020 and may have a strong mayor system by then. When will the mayors work together and take leading roles in shaping, funding and selling a regional mass transit system?
The county commissions cannot do this alone, in part because they have no dominant leader in Pinellas or Hills-borough. Neither can business leaders. The mayors are the key faces of the region. Until they stand together on both ends of the Howard Frankland Bridge and demand better, nothing visionary will get done. They are candid enough to acknowledge Tampa Bay is falling behind on transit. Now they need to get in the game.