When the person most familiar with the mass transit priorities of Tampa Bay counties says he has no idea what Pinellas County's top transit priority is, that's a big problem. If the county doesn't fill its leadership vacuum and get its government agencies on the same track, a ripe opportunity for funding may be lost.
There is no lack of talking, there just isn't enough doing. One example: Forty officials gathered in a hotel ballroom Monday for a "Pinellas transit summit." After three hours of talking, there was nothing to show for it.
"In every other county, I can tell you what their priorities are. I'm not sure in Pinellas County," Bob Clifford, executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, told the group. Clifford said he wasn't even sure whom to ask.
Pinellas, Florida's most densely populated county, ought to be scrambling to compete for billions in federal funding Washington wants to spend on rail. Instead, it is wallowing in uncertainty and mired in parochialism. The impression it leaves is that 25 local governments and a bevy of boards that touch on transit are so shortsighted they can't see the big picture: Pinellas is out of space to build new roads and needs mass transit, including rapid buses and light rail, that might ultimately link to a statewide high-speed rail system.
A bad idea that surfaced at Monday's summit was to create a new board to push for rail. Pinellas already has the Metropolitan Planning Organization made up of elected officials representing Pinellas County, its cities and its bus system. The MPO has a county transportation plan and has identified potential corridors for a light rail line. Its preferred option: light rail between St. Petersburg and Tampa on the Howard Frankland Bridge.
Hillsborough voters are expected to decide in November 2010 whether to raise the sales tax to help fund their own light rail and officials there want the state to jump-start a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. Pinellas would be able to tie into both projects with a Howard Frankland light rail line, providing a boon for both tourism and commuters.
Yet Pinellas officials are splintered over the idea. Some don't want rail or are scared of voter backlash if they ask for a sales tax to fund it. Some have abandoned the idea of rail over the bay because the state is not scheduled to replace the Howard Frankland's eastbound span — which must be replaced to accommodate rail — until 2025. They propose a less desirable line linking south and north Pinellas.
Before writing off the preferred corridor, Pinellas should be mounting a powerful campaign to convince Tallahassee that the aging bridge needs to be replaced earlier. But that would require two things Pinellas so far doesn't have: acceptance by all officials of the MPO's plans and preferred corridor, and an acknowledged leader to direct the campaign for transit funding. Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard has prepared himself well to fill that role but has yet to receive the backing of other leaders. Ultimately, the next St. Petersburg mayor and someone from the county commission also must step forward.
Worsening traffic congestion will blunt Pinellas' ability to prosper economically, will cost its residents more at the gas pump, and will negatively affect quality of life. It can take years to get a mass transit project off the ground. Pinellas can't afford to waste any more time.