With just three weeks left in the Florida Legislature's annual session, Tampa Bay's top priority is stalled. The region's most promising effort to create a robust regional transportation agency that would oversee the creation of a modern transit system is mired in committees and maneuvering among area legislators. It's time to get this initiative moving, and it's up to the region's lawmakers and business leaders to ensure this is not another opportunity wasted.
The bill filed by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, to transform the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority into something more than a glorified van service has been idling for weeks. It would reduce the agency's footprint, overhaul the composition of TBARTA's board and provide clear direction to "plan, implement and operate'' transit options throughout the region. Without a vigorous regional transit agency, Tampa Bay will remain stuck in traffic forever.
There is an opportunity to get the legislation, SB 1672, back on track next week. Senate Community Affairs Chairman Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, has agreed to schedule the bill for a hearing in his committee Monday. Lee recognizes the importance of this regional transit effort, although he is not a particular fan of light rail. Another member of his committee, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is an opponent of light rail and a promoter of rideshare, driverless cars and other alternatives. But these familiar fault lines over transit should not be allowed to derail this legislation.
At this point, creating a viable regional transit agency is more important than debating which mode of transportation can best ease Tampa Bay's traffic nightmare. It could be a regional rapid bus system. It could be light rail. It could be express toll lanes on the interstate. It could be using the CSX rail line that loops through Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Most likely, the answer is some combination of these possibilities and probably others. A comprehensive analysis of the options won't be completed until next year, and that should help steer the discussion.
Regardless of the technology, there has to be a robust regional agency to build consensus, conceive and create a regional transit system for the 21st century. This legislation is the best attempt so far to achieve that goal. TBARTA's name would be adjusted to replace "transportation" with "transit.'' More importantly, its footprint would shrink from covering seven counties to a more manageable four: Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Manatee. Others could be added later. The bill also has been fine-tuned to add the mayors of Tampa and St. Petersburg to a 13-member board that also would include county commissioners from each county and business leaders from throughout the region. And TBARTA would be directly charged with creating a regional transit development plan.
Tampa Bay cannot wait any longer for that plan. Having each county go it alone with its own transit plans and voter referendums hasn't worked, and the state and federal governments want the region to speak with one voice. This legislation would ensure that TBARTA becomes that voice, and the Tampa Bay Partnership composed of prominent business leaders agrees this is the right approach.
The legislative session is entering the home stretch, and Lee's committee should get this bill moving again Monday. The focus now should be on creating a robust agency to craft and implement a regional transit plan rather than the details of the plan itself, and there is no time to waste.