Area leaders frustrated by the construction tie-ups on the Howard Frankland Bridge should look at the excitement in Miami. Last week, the mayors of Miami-Dade, Miami and Miami Beach embraced the concept of connecting downtown Miami and Miami Beach with light rail, marking another step for the megacity in developing a world-class economy, tourism market and quality of life. The Tampa Bay region should be as bold and cooperative in pursuing a plan and a timetable for rail across the bay.
The meeting in Miami was the second since January at which officials discussed a rail link over Biscayne Bay. The mayors moved quickly, agreeing to partner to find $3 million to pay for an early study that could lead to design and development plans. The local governments are looking to contribute $250,000 apiece, with the balance coming from state and federal grants.
The idea of connecting Miami Beach and downtown by rail is nothing new. Neither is the similar goal of connecting Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. That idea got a kick-start recently after Florida's Department of Transportation agreed to spend roughly $25 million to build an underpinning for rail on the structural support of the planned new northbound span of the Howard Frankland. That at least would put the supports for rail in place. But the difference is that officials in Miami are spending time and money to get their dreams moving, working together and signaling to the state and federal governments that the local governments are committed partners in this big-ticket project.
Pinellas has an opportunity to move the needle with the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum in November. Hillsborough is laying the groundwork for another transit referendum after the first one failed in 2010. For both counties to begin building a modern transit system that bridges the bay, a new source of dedicated revenue is essential. Yet neither side has managed to make regional connectivity a front-burner issue even amid the Pinellas vote, the transit talks in Hillsborough or DOT's pledge of $25 million toward cross-bay rail.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has struck a delicate balance by encouraging Greenlight in Pinellas without being overbearing or intrusive. But as the election nears, and as Hillsborough brings its own plan to the decisionmaking stage, officials will need to talk more about how a transit system could benefit both sides of the bay. That should at least involve members of the Pinellas and Hillsborough county commissions and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
The mayors in Miami realize that traffic patterns matter more than political boundaries. And they accept that local governments must eventually invest in planning and promoting transit projects even if construction is years away and involves state and federal governments.
In Tampa Bay, regional leaders face the same dynamics, with tens of thousands of commuters crossing bay area bridges to work every day. Local officials need a transit plan that reflects reality, improves mobility throughout the region and makes the entire area more competitive. If Miami and its neighbors can figure it out, so can Tampa Bay.