The agency created last year to write a regional transit plan has done a good job in recent months reaching out to residents on ways to improve transportation along the Gulf Coast, from Citrus to Sarasota counties. But with the price of gasoline inching toward $4 a gallon, and the deadline for the master plan one year away, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority should ramp up its work and its visibility. It needs to avoid bogging down in parochial politics and offer a vision the region can unite behind.
TBARTA has taken the essential steps toward building a consensus on what kind of transportation system the region needs. Hundreds of residents have attended the dozens of meetings, workshops and civic presentations throughout the seven-county region since January. By July, TBARTA must decide how its member-governments will resolve partnership disputes. By July 2009, it must adopt a plan for a regionally integrated and multimodal system — roads, rail, waterborne ferry and other networks — and a method for financing it. Those are tall orders even if TBARTA had money, a track record of intergovernmental cooperation or a political climate conducive to raising taxes. It needs to propose something bold that would make commuting easier, cheaper and more convenient while preserving the environment, growing the economy and protecting the area's rural, urban and suburban lifestyles.
This may be easier than it seems, at least in the technical aspects. The major corridors between Tampa and St. Petersburg, for example, and even the north-south routes along the Gulf Coast, either already exist or are predictable. What the region needs is a reliable, intercounty mass transit system. While TBARTA is charged with crafting a multimodal plan, the rationale in creating it — and certainly its broad appeal — was the potential to bring some economy of scale to a growing metropolis, to better manage the environment of a coastal ecosystem and to provide an alternative in a working-class region to having households spend up to a third of their income on getting from point A to B.
There is no time like now to capture the public's attention. The rising price of gasoline has caused more people on both sides of Tampa Bay to ride the bus, form carpools and seek more fuel-efficient vehicles. TBARTA should be tapping into that frustration by offering something better. Its chairman, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Shelton Quarles, should be hammering home that message at every opportunity. He needs to be more visible. TBARTA is an unknown entity with a bureaucratic name. It needs to move fast and identify itself as a solution to the region's No. 1 problem.