The Tampa Bay region has no greater problem than its congested and outdated transportation system. For two decades, political leaders throughout Tampa Bay have acknowledged that commuter rail must play a role if the growing region is to maintain its quality of life and diversify and grow its economy. Yet all the talk and costly studies have failed to drive a single spike into the ground; even a rudimentary rail system is at least another decade away.
That's why Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio's plan to jump-start rail is encouraging. The time has come to give commuters more transit options and for the region to make better use of its land and transportation dollars. But adding rail is an expensive and long-term undertaking. Moving ahead should reflect a larger consensus that the region is ready to address transportation and growth well beyond the lens of parochial politics.
Iorio wants Hillsborough County to hold a referendum in 2010 on whether to increase the sales tax for the purpose of devoting that money to mass transit. While no concrete proposal is on the table, a half-penny increase would generate more than $105-million annually, nearly three times the amount Hillsborough currently spends on mass transportation — principally, a bus system. Iorio wants to use the increase to expand bus service and to leverage federal money to begin building commuter rail. Again, while no map has been proposed, supporters see the initial line running from the suburbs of New Tampa, near the Pasco County border, to the University of South Florida, downtown and then to Tampa International Airport, which already has dedicated space for a rail corridor.
Hillsborough County is further ahead than any other in the region in moving to take a rail plan to the voters. But it also is a member of a newly formed agency, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, which is working to integrate the transit systems of seven counties along Florida's Gulf Coast. Iorio says her plan, which the conservative Hillsborough County Commission is warming to support, will not pre-empt the creation of a regional system but rather promote it by bringing a passenger line and money to the table. She is right that rail must start somewhere, and that trains would surely stop in downtown Tampa and at the airport, anyway.
But Hillsborough needs to be careful not to strike out on its own. The value of rail to Hillsborough is in reaching the suburbs in Pasco and Manatee counties and in serving the people who live and work across the bridges. A plan that appears Hillsborough-centric could spark a backlash in the region. Smaller and rural counties need to see the benefit of joining. Member counties need to feel ownership, rail lines need to be compatible and the governing structure for the system needs to be responsive.
There is a way to balance Iorio's urgency with the need to think from an areawide perspective. Leaders in Pinellas and Pasco, especially, need to get more involved in making the case for regional mass transit. In the last decade, the delay in travel time in Tampa and St. Petersburg has been four times the growth rate. Along our coast, working families were spending a third of their incomes on transportation even before gas reached $4 a gallon. Commuters here on average spend 45 hours per year sitting in traffic. Some people, put another way, spend the equivalent of half their annual vacation waiting for the light.
With population in the region expected to double by 2050, to 7-million, bay area leaders need to find alternatives to the ever-expensive cycle of adding roadway capacity. TBARTA has until July to finish its master plan, and regional leaders have two years before the next election cycle to coalesce around a plan to expand buses, build rail or both. Many issues remain: How do you phase in the involvement of the cities and counties; what improvements do you make; who pays; and when and what governing structure oversees the operations? There is time to resolve the details. But there also is a lot riding on getting this right — not just making it easier and cheaper to get around, but making our mobility a feature that attracts new residents and industries. Let's keep the cross-county dialogue going.