The state's decision to help pay for a rail route over a new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge is a significant victory and an important challenge for the Tampa Bay area. Finally, the Department of Transportation recognizes the role that mass transit and state tax money must play in moving people throughout the region. This should improve the prospects for a 2014 transit referendum in Pinellas County, and it should inspire elected leaders on both sides of the bay to develop a joint rail plan to connect Hillsborough and Pinellas.
DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad announced the news Wednesday in a meeting with area political and business leaders organized by the Tampa Bay Partnership, the regional group that has been instrumental in advocating for a regional light rail system. It comes as the DOT is exploring options for replacing the northbound span of the Howard Frankland, and as area leaders have lobbied the department to include room for rail on a new bridge. DOT officials resisted committing state money for rail as recently as three weeks ago, arguing that rail could more than double the replacement span's $390 million estimated cost. They said the state would only preserve an "envelope" for rail or other forms of transit. Now the state is on record agreeing to finance a $25 million substructure for rail on any new span. And it is leaving open the possibility of financing the actual rail line across the bridge as long as Pinellas and Hillsborough agree to use compatible rail technology. This is a big step forward in the state's cooperation and thinking, and it calls for an equally bold move by local leaders.
The first order of business is for both sides to make spanning the bay with a rail connection a higher priority. Rail across the bay was part of Hillsborough's failed transit plan in 2010, and the Greenlight Pinellas referendum anticipates that connection would be made one day. The DOT's offer now clears the way for Tampa Bay to work together to secure the same state money that enabled South Florida and Central Florida to build regional rail systems. Pinellas needs to keep its regional vision in focus, and Hillsborough needs to catch up by bringing a viable transit package back to its voters.
More urgently, the Pinellas and Hillsborough county commissions, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and the winner of Tuesday's St. Petersburg mayoral election should take the lead in building on the DOT's offer. They should quickly reach a consensus on how to design and pay for a light rail link across the Howard Frankland. Area legislators also need to think more clearly about how a modern transportation system can help this region better compete. Tampa Bay has fallen behind Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville in positioning itself to take advantage of rail. The sustained political and civic effort to get the DOT behind rail on the Howard Frankland shows that coalition-building and working together as a region is the key to success.