Gas prices have fallen recently, but many Americans seem to have learned some important lessons from the soaring prices of just weeks ago: that high gas prices can wreck family budgets and contribute to high prices for essential goods such as food and clothing; that the nation's reliance on a steady flow of foreign oil is risky business; that we need alternatives to traveling ever-more-crowded roadways in our gas-powered automobiles.
Today, residents of Pinellas County have the opportunity to learn about and comment on a possible alternative, if they will only take the time.
From 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. today, representatives of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority will hold a community workshop at the downtown Clearwater Main Library, 100 Osceola Ave. People may wander in, look at maps and plans, and ask questions.
TBARTA (pronounced T-barta) is an agency charged with creating a transportation master plan to link the seven counties of the Tampa Bay region: Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Manatee and Sarasota. Many of the region's political and community leaders are involved and are, for the first time, working in concert on a plan.
TBARTA grew out of the realization that these Tampa Bay counties will see enormous population growth in the next 50 years and cannot afford the costs or the congestion associated with just laying down more lanes of asphalt.
TBARTA Chairman Shelton Quarles says that the agency is getting close now to throwing out its "first pitch" — a draft master plan that will go to public hearings next year. Fourteen open house-style community workshops are scheduled in the seven counties so residents can see and comment on three potential networks of rail lines and express buses that would allow people to leave their cars and use mass transit to traverse the Tampa Bay region. TBARTA wants to know the public's opinion of the networks before finalizing the draft plan.
Pinellas residents who can't make today's meeting in Clearwater can attend a second workshop scheduled for 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Nov. 20 at the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, 100 Second Ave. N, Suite 150, St. Petersburg.
Or if you can't make it in person, an online community workshop is scheduled for Nov. 18. For information about the online workshop, go to TBARTA's Web site at www.tbarta.com. Visitors to that Web site also can see maps showing the three potential networks of rail and bus lines and register their preferences through an online survey.
It is hoped that Pinellas will have better turnout for its workshops than Pasco County. Few people showed up for the Pasco meetings late last month. Need some extra motivation to get involved? Just keep in mind that at some point after the master plan is approved, methods of funding the plan will be proposed. "Funding" likely means tax dollars from some source, so it would behoove the public to get onboard this train before it leaves the station.