The Tampa Bay region has taken a critical step toward finally creating a robust regional approach to addressing its chronic transportation problems. The Florida House sent to the governor on Wednesday legislation that would strengthen and focus the regional effort to build a modern and efficient transit system. With strong bipartisan support from the area's political and business leaders, this is an essential piece of the puzzle and Gov. Rick Scott should sign it into law.
The bill, SB 1672, changes the name of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority to reflect its broader, more robust mission. The word "transportation" is replaced by "transit" to call attention to the role that buses, automated vehicles and rail might play in easing the region's gridlock. More substantively, TBARTA would be commissioned to "plan, implement and operate" a range of mobility options for moving people and freight throughout the region. The agency's target area would initially cover Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee and Hernando counties, though contiguous counties could also agree to participate.
Narrowing TBARTA's scope to five counties from the existing seven will help the region focus on core congestion problems in the metro area. Tens of thousands of commuters in the region cross county lines for work every day. With a tighter footprint and a greater sense of urgency to find solutions, this agency could achieve its original purpose by taking the lead on improving regional transit, whether on the bay bridges or by expanding bus service or building a new light rail system. At this point, the urgency and the focus on a regional effort is more important than the type of transit, which should be decided by a regional consensus.
The legislation suffered a brief hiccup this legislative session as two Tampa Bay area senators gummed up the bill by adding obstacles to building a rail system. But with a strong nudge from key business leaders from the Tampa Bay Partnership, those speed bumps were smoothed over with acceptable revisions that subject any proposed rail project to extensive public vetting.
Scott should see the bill that passed unanimously in both chambers as a balanced, responsible approach by the region to be accountable for its own destiny with no predetermined conclusions about a specific plan. The agency's 13-member governing board would include locally elected officials from the five counties and area business leaders. Scott would make four appointments to the board, including its founding chairman. This new governing structure is fresh and inclusive, and it reflects the strong working relationship of the bill's major proponents, from the Tampa Bay Partnership to the bill's main sponsors, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, to mayors and county commissioners on both sides of the bay.
Strengthening the governance of TBARTA is an essential step for the region to work together toward commuting solutions. But the tougher work is yet to come: deciding what transit options and routes are best and how to pay for them. This lays a solid foundation for the region's political and business leaders to find common ground. It's a statement about the need and urgency for modernizing the transit system, and the role that system will play in Tampa Bay's ability to compete and maintain its quality of life. The governor can support the ambition behind this effort by signing the bill into law and by appointing members to the board who are as forward-looking as this legislation.