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Guest column

We must invest in transit needs

Dr. Samuel Johnson famously said, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Those of us in leadership positions with transit-oriented agencies and committees on both sides of the bay understand that our bus systems are slowly strangling due to declining revenue sources, a situation primarily attributable to our reliance on property taxes for operating funds.

The fact that both the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority cannot provide service adequate to the needs of a major metropolitan area — no matter how efficiently and enthusiastically these agencies conduct their business with the resources currently at hand — points to a bigger issue of stagnation that plagues the Tampa Bay region. To put it bluntly, unless we work diligently to create a truly modern, multifaceted transportation system for the benefit of the citizens (and tourists) of this region, we will see the area slide into second-rate status, and we will become known, for all intents and purposes, as a metropolitan backwater.

Our business community understands this intuitively, for it knows that a dynamic economy, in today's steeply competitive climate, must depend on the backbone provided by a variety of transportation options. To simply close our eyes to this reality will not make it go away. For the younger generation, quality of life goes hand in hand with quality of transportation, yet the importance of this fact is somehow eluding us, or at least we are not adequately responding to this growing need.

The defeat of the Hillsborough transportation ballot proposal is only a temporary setback, and may in fact be a blessing in disguise if it leads to a revised plan that will be embraced by the majority of the electorate the next time around — and I believe that there must be a next time and a next opportunity for our leaders to do their duty by their communities. It is up to these leaders to mold plans — with input from a wide variety of community sources — that will provide the desired forms of transportation for our region deep into the century.

Pinellas County has been working on a new vision for transit that features light rail and a vastly expanded bus system. A crucial aspect of this vision is the linking of our system (both rail and bus) with those of adjoining counties. I have no doubt that we in Pinellas will continue our efforts with the goal of asking the voters to approve a proposal that is detailed and comprehensive in scope and one that will provide a map for future transportation improvements (including roads, sidewalks and biking trails) in every corner of the county.

When will voters finally see this on their ballots? The most likely date will be in the fall of 2012, because by then the Alternatives Analysis — the project at the center of our planning process — will have been long completed, and its conclusions thoroughly integrated into our new plan.

If at that time Hillsborough County is also ready, we will have an excellent opportunity to coordinate the formulation of these proposals with the support of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. If the economy is finally showing signs of strengthening in the period leading up to 2012, there will be no reason why we should not bring our proposals to the electorate two years from now. I believe that Pinellas and Hillsborough counties going forward simultaneously opens up regional planning possibilities that will both help garner funding support from the Federal Transit Administration and capture the imagination and enthusiasm of voters on both sides of the bay.

The bottom line is that we cannot simply wave a magic wand and expect our transportation system to suddenly and providentially improve. Transportation is an investment, and we will not achieve a significant return for the community as a whole unless the pump is adequately primed. And that means money, enough of it to build and operate a substantially larger and more varied system across the region than we have — unfortunately — gotten used to seeing.

I support the notion that tax reform (via a swap of the PSTA millage for a sales tax, which would lighten the load on property owners) is better than merely adding one tax to another. At 1 cent, the revenue that this sales tax would generate would build a transit system in Pinellas County exponentially better than what we have now, but without it there is no hope of any substantial improvement because of the relative meagerness of other potential funding sources. There's no need to sugarcoat here: Only greater funding leads to greater service.

If there was ever a time for bold and determined leadership in Pinellas County, that time is now. We do not have to consign our community to a state of gradual and perpetual decline, but that is what we will be doing if we neglect to address, in a serious manner, our future transportation needs.

Take it from someone who understands transit from the inside out: The crisis is here. I urge our leaders, in all sectors of our community, to step forward and illustrate by their actions the truth of the old adage, that crisis brings out the best in the best.

R.B. Johnson is chairman of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and mayor of Indian Rocks Beach.

We must invest in transit needs 11/16/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 16, 2010 3:30am]
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