Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn made the final rounds last week in advance of the Republican National Convention to hammer home a single message: This is our time to shine. After years of preparation, the mayor told the packed crowds at three town hall meetings that Tampa is ready for the international spotlight.
But the city's transportation system? Not so much.
That became clear after a battery of department heads who tagged along with the mayor outlined how next week's convention will affect everything from garbage pickups and school bus routes to police staffing in the neighborhoods. The most-asked question was what workers could expect as they navigated the downtown streets choked with security. After hearing the presentations, it's more likely that the garbage will be emptied than that the average worker will get to his or her downtown office on time.
For all practical purposes, the southern portion of downtown will be closed to vehicles (aside from those shuttling delegates and other VIPs). That includes the Selmon Expressway and Platt Street bridge, pipelines for tens of thousands of people into downtown every day. The security bubble is such a barrier to traffic that entire government agencies are moving operations next week out of downtown and into the suburbs. Closed roads will be closed to bicycles, too, to the dismay of residents in the channel district who work on the other side of the river. Cruise ship passengers are being asked to bypass downtown entirely by taking Interstate 4 and doubling back through Ybor City to reach the port.
The broader issue here is not the police or the Secret Service. It's decades of bad planning and the refusal to acknowledge that mass transit plays a role in every desirable city. The county bus agency, HART, said it would run a shuttle into downtown. But no one knows precisely where; the plan is in flux and still likely to change. The city is so resigned to auto traffic that it is encouraging people to at least drop off their passengers in the morning and pick them up at the end of the workday.
The mayor is right that the convention will be a window for residents to look at their city in a different light. And we're seeing the same things we saw a decade ago, when Tampa mounted a bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, a bid that failed almost at the start because of the region's poor mass transportation system. That effort led to a grand design for a new urban village — anchored by mass transit — surrounding the downtown core. And while that project tanked, too, thanks to the recession, the city is drafting an even more ambitious plan for the downtown-area neighborhoods — one that (again) relies heavily on the mass transit Tampa doesn't have.
No one builds a transportation system for a single event. But the convention is a chance to imagine what would be possible for the region on a more regular basis if it had as its backbone a more functional and efficient way to move residents and visitors around.
John Hill is a Tampa Bay Times editorial writer.