If a modern transportation system for the Tampa Bay region is ever to move from a debating topic to reality, then area leaders need to recognize a launching point when it comes along. That opportunity could be today, when elected officials and the region's transportation leaders will discuss a vision that could remake the look and economy of west-central Florida for decades.
The presentations at Tampa International Airport will bring together the broadest base of leaders involved in area transit in recent memory. Officials from a half-dozen counties will explain their transportation plans for the coming years. The meeting is an opportunity to hear how rail, expanded bus and other mass transit will better move millions of people across the Tampa Bay region.
But the larger goal should be to foster a sense of collaboration. How will Hillsborough County rebound from the failed 2010 transit referendum? How will Pinellas prepare for its transit vote in 2014? How will the area counties work with TIA to build new transit options in and out of the airport? Will bay area leaders stand together in calling for rail on the new Howard Frankland Bridge span? And as Orlando moves ahead with regional and cross-state rail lines, how will the bay area capitalize on the chance to connect to the major urban markets in Central and South Florida?
The problem is not the lack of planning for transit here but the lack of political courage to carry it out. The bay area's legislative delegation has been AWOL as Orlando and Miami have moved ahead on transportation and as Jacksonville positions itself to take advantage of new passenger rail service along the East Coast. This region needs to get its act together before the transit hubs in Central and East Florida peel away the market and diminish Tampa Bay's competitive edge. The best message area leaders can send is to agree on a firm plan and timetable for bringing rail and expanded bus service to the five counties comprising the heart of Tampa Bay.
The bridge replacement, the airport's new construction and people mover plans, and the new focus on regional and cross-state rail all speak to the inadequacy of the existing transportation grid — and to the need for urgency now in planning a transit system that can keep the region competitive in the future. Today's session should be a starting point for integrating the region's transportation plans and for moving across a broad front to put the plans into place.