The Tampa Bay region scored an important victory this legislative session with a bill awaiting Gov. Rick Scott's signature that would help modernize the region's transit system. Now it should take the next step by creating a single panel that would focus on ranking the region's transportation priorities. These developments would work hand-in-hand to bring new solutions and funding to Tampa Bay, and local leaders should not allow parochial interests or hyped-up concerns to stand in the way of smarter growth.
Area business and political leaders met Friday to discuss whether to merge the county-based transportation planning agencies across the region into a single Metropolitan Planning Organization. Comprised of local elected officials and the heads of transportation agencies, MPOs oversee transportation planning at the local level and serve as conduits between cities and counties and the state and federal governments. Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties each have their own MPO, and that is two too many.
The county-by-county approach no longer works in this growing region. The Pinellas beaches are a regional draw. Tampa's airport and seaport serve all of Central Florida. The University of South Florida is a major engine on both sides of Tampa Bay. Tens of thousands of residents commute across county lines to work. Pinellas and Hillsborough have joined hands in promoting tourism and funding a cross-bay ferry. The 3 million residents in the region all depend on access to the bay bridges and the interstate system, and there should be a single champion to ensure that Tampa Bay sets the right priorities and speaks with one voice to get its fair share of state and federal dollars.
A unified MPO could provide a game plan for better transit throughout the region. Where would cars, rail and buses work best? How can we use transit to shape housing patterns, access to jobs, retail and entertainment and to protect natural resources? Regions with a unified MPO are also more competitive for state and federal funding. With the Trump administration looking to cut back on urban development and transit grants, it is essential the region adopt an approach for transportation planning that fits the times and maximizes the region's clout and profile.
Critics fear consolidation would lead to a crowding out of local projects, as big-ticket regional initiatives consume the lion's share of time, money and political attention. But there is no reason to believe a unified MPO would lose its sense of mission merely because it expanded its scope. Most major metros in the country have a single MPO, and those agencies have balanced local needs with larger visions for their communities. Tampa Bay's growth in recent years also has sparked an intense public conversation on how to use different transit options where they work best. If anything, a unified MPO would build accountability into the planning system by ensuring that local and regional projects were compatible.
Friday's meeting was the first of many in the coming months. There are myriad concerns that need to be addressed, from the geography of a unified MPO and its representation to the role that local governments will continue to play in planning decisions. This discussion should not take forever, and it should not focus on who might lose their job or power. This is an opportunity to put the region's transit needs in a stronger position for funding, and for the area to think longer-term where it is headed. Local leaders should embrace this goal and work constructively to make it happen.