Tampa Bay lawmakers are headed in the right direction as they move to focus the region's transportation efforts. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has filed legislation that would strengthen a largely irrelevant regional transportation agency by giving it a tighter focus, stronger leadership and a clearer mission to create a modern transit system. It's more important than ever to create a strong regional authority that can bring Tampa Bay together on a common mission.
The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority has failed to achieve many of its goals since being created by the Legislature a decade ago. Lawmakers and the business community initially saw TBARTA as a vehicle for moving forward with modern regional transit plans, and it helped build a regional consensus on some transportation priorities. But it never acted as a broker to advance the most ambitious projects, has no permanent source of funding and failed to counter provincial thinking that caused transit referendums to fail in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The structure and the authority to borrow money and assemble land is there, but other than a van service there have been few concrete accomplishments.
Reimagining TBARTA rather than starting over makes sense. The agency already has a regional focus, a planning mission and the right to construct and operate a range of transportation systems, from rail and express bus service to ferries and roads. It also has relationships with the state and federal government that are key in obtaining funding and technical assistance.
Latvala's SB 1672 adjusts TBARTA's name by replacing "transportation'' with "transit.'' It also reduces the agency's footprint from seven counties along the Gulf Coast to four: Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee. Tens of thousands of commuters cross those county lines to work every day, and other counties could be added later.
The bill would strengthen TBARTA by giving it express direction to "plan, implement and operate" multimodal transit options throughout the region. It would coordinate plans among member counties and prioritize regionally significant projects. And it designates TBARTA as the recipient of federal funds for any intercounty or major one-county project. The impact of that move needs careful examination, because it shouldn't be an obstacle to progress in any one city.
This is a forward-looking framework for making TBARTA robust and relevant. The measure raises some concerns by changing the agency's board to eliminate seats now held by the mayors of St. Petersburg and Tampa, and by giving legislators and the governor the majority of the appointments to a scaled-down, 13-member board. A successful Tampa Bay transit plan will require plenty of support from the governor and legislative leaders from Tampa Bay, including House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes; future House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater; and two future Senate presidents, Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. But the mayors have large populations and a vested stake in transit solutions, and they should retain voting seats on the governing board.
The revamped Tampa Bay Partnership of influential business leaders and elected officials from both sides of the bay, from Pinellas County Commission chair Janet Long to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, generally favors the regional approach to transit envisioned by Latvala's proposal. It is past time to get moving.