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Push is on for regional transit authority

It's almost 2007 in Tampa Bay, one of the country's most congested metropolitan areas.

Yet the region, which has aspired to host international events like the Olympics, remains a transit infant.

Try taking a public bus from New Port Richey or St. Petersburg directly to Tampa International Airport. You can't.

Ronnie Duncan, who becomes Pinellas County Commission chairman in January, hopes progress can be made by a new regional organization.

As outlined in a proposal by Pinellas County Administrator Steve Spratt, the group would include officials and transit agency representatives from Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

Despite an array of local transportation planning groups, Duncan said discussion among the governments has been limited, even as growth patterns are transforming the region.

"The time has come for us to begin addressing these shifts between where people live and people work," he said.

The idea comes as Tampa Bay leaders appear to be realizing that new directions are needed.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has become a voice for area light rail and has succeeded in getting the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit, which operate trolleys and buses, to talk about regional cooperation.

And state Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, is sponsoring legislation to create a regional transportation authority. The authority, which has the support of the Tampa Bay Partnership, an economic development group, would include leaders from Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Galvano's authority would have the ability to create public-private partnerships and issue bonds to pay for large transportation projects. He said the group could coexist with Duncan's smaller transit organization, but the last thing Tampa Bay needs is more talk that never leads to actual remedies.

"We are literally choking on plans in our region," he said.

Duncan said he supports Galvano's legislation and sees his own regional transit organization as playing a complementary role.

Pasco County Commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand and Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe both said they support Duncan's proposal and will bring the idea before their boards.

Hildebrand said she thinks her colleagues will get behind the idea; Sharpe said he may face some resistance, but that it was time to end turf battles that have doomed other attempts to improve area transportation.

Times staff writers Bill Varian and Janet Zink contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at (727) 445-4166 or vansant@sptimes.com.

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