Sometimes it is difficult to get around the Tampa Bay area in your car, but members of the region's transportation authority want to make it as easy as possible for you to talk to them about a new mass transit plan they have drafted. All you have to do is pick up the phone. Residents ought to take advantage of this convenient opportunity to express themselves.
The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority is conducting a series of what they call "iTown Hall meetings" by telephone this week and next week. For each meeting, they will call 40,000 residents randomly selected in the seven-county region covered by TBARTA, including Pinellas, and ask them to join in the live telephone meeting about mass transit. The calls began Monday and continue at 7 p.m. tonight, Wednesday, Thursday and May 4-7 and will conclude on May 13. Each night, two public officials who serve on the TBARTA board, joined by TBARTA staff, will host the meeting.
Residents who want to participate but don't want to wait for a call can join in by phoning toll-free to 1-877-269-7289 prior to 7 p.m. on the appointed nights and entering PIN# 14837.
People who have a question or comment but don't want to participate by telephone can send in their remarks through the TBARTA Web site at www.tbarta.com.
It would be a good idea to first go to the excellent TBARTA Web page and read the draft Regional Transportation Master Plan developed by TBARTA following public meetings throughout the region last year.
The plan calls for the phased construction of a coordinated rail and express bus system stretching from Citrus to Sarasota counties. TBARTA officials hope that federal money would pay 80 percent of the cost of constructing the system, perhaps with local sales taxes used to fund the remainder. Hillsborough County officials, who want to get the first phase of construction, are writing a referendum question calling for a one-penny increase in the sales tax there; it may go to voters next year.
The premise of the TBARTA master plan is that the seven-county region will continue to grow over the next 40 years, with the population approximately doubling during that time. That growth will cause commute times, congestion and the cost of commuting to increase exponentially. That's something that TBARTA and others believe must be headed off by creating a viable, sustainable mass transit system that does not stop at county lines.
TBARTA is required by act of the state Legislature to adopt a regional transportation master plan by July 1. The plan now in draft form utilizes short- and long-distance bus lines, short- and long-distance rail lines, and managed traffic lanes on highways to create a coordinated system. The plan contains two phases: a mid-term regional network of short-term rail, bus rapid transit, managed lanes and express buses that would be built by 2035, and a long-term network that would include those types of transit plus long-distance rail to be built by 2050.
The costs of such improvements would be mind-boggling, but TBARTA officials say that federal assistance would make it doable. They estimate the cost of just the mid-term network at $13.7 billion to $25.8 billion over 25 years. But they argue that the costs of not doing something to improve the regional transportation system would be even higher.
The public opinions gathered from the telephone town hall meetings will be combined with the ideas from a traditional public hearing May 11 at 6 p.m. at the Alfano Center, 11606 N McKinley Drive, Tampa. For more information, go to www.tbarta.com.
Thousands of people in the Tampa Bay region spoke or wrote about mass transit during the early planning phases for the master plan. Now, there is a concrete plan for interested residents to address. It is time to speak up.