After several failed starts, Tampa Bay may be finally starting to get its act together on mass transit. The transit agencies on both sides of the bay are looking at more ways to cooperate — a step toward improving regional bus service, saving time and taxpayer money and laying a foundation for new regional transit. County leaders in Pinellas and Hillsborough are also considering how to sharpen the region's focus and make the area more competitive for state and federal transit money. There is plenty of work to do and details to iron out, but the work behind the scenes is encouraging.
The quiet discussions are particularly reassuring in the wake of three failed transit initiatives in the bay area in recent years. They also are in stark contrast to the controversy around Tampa Bay Express, the proposed overhaul of the interstate system that calls for toll lanes and a massive highway rebuild over parts of neighborhoods near downtown Tampa.
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, the incoming board chairman, got things rolling this fall with her ambitious proposal to consolidate the bay area's key transportation agencies and her discussions with state and local officials on both sides of the bay. It is an overdue idea that is both practical and strategic, and key state lawmakers are interested in moving forward when the Legislature meets in the spring. Folding the separate transit agencies in the region under a sole umbrella, or consolidating some services, would bring a sharper focus to the region's commuting needs and provide an opportunity to save money. By having the entire region agree on its transportation priorities, the bay area would speak with one voice for state and federal transportation dollars, becoming a more attractive candidate for a portion of the limited pot of public money.
The two counties' mass transit agencies, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, are considering an agreement to collaborate on some operations, from human resources to technology. This is a good step toward maximizing resources in both counties and taking advantage of bulk buying and other efficiencies that come with a larger operation. Leaders at PSTA and HART will continue the talks through January with a goal of offering a collaborative framework to the Legislature in its coming session. HART is also crafting a proposal for new regional service called AirPorter that would connect riders in downtown Tampa, St. Petersburg and the Carillon area to Tampa International Airport.
The movement sets the table for local leaders to be prepared when the state completes its regional premium transit study in 2018. That study should offer big fixes for regional mobility, and by having a more responsive government in place the region will be better positioned to move quickly on big solutions. The area also will be better positioned to induce the state to improve the Tampa Bay Express plan, which needs a more robust role for mass transit.
Long and other leaders across the bay, including HART chief executive Katharine Eagan, are bringing order, direction and a sense of urgency to the region's transit efforts. This approach has the opportunity to improve bus service, ease road congestion, lay a path for regional rail, save tax money and make for smarter growth, easing the costly impacts of sprawl. To voters looking for a better strategy before agreeing to tax themselves more for transit, these are positive developments. They should make commuting easier and more affordable and protect the area's quality of life.
There are more particulars to deal with, and Tampa Bay is still a long way from a robust regional transportation authority and one common plan for mass transit that includes light rail. But in a region that was divided by county lines and rivalries for far too long, the substantive conversations taking place now represent real progress and point to a productive new year.