This is becoming a tired and depressing exercise.
In yet another aftermath of a failed effort to get light rail approved in Tampa Bay, there's been much hand-wringing about what went wrong and why rail just won't work here. It's been five years since Hillsborough County even tried to get voters to approve light rail, and county leaders seem hesitant to renew the struggle. A new $3.5 billion plan to fund transportation projects over the next 30 years scrapped light rail altogether.*
Because, you know, Tampa Bay isn't like those northern regions where rail is popular. It's more like Phoenix, a Sunbelt city that developed after the birth of the automobile. And rail just won't work in places like that.
Oh, but wait.
According to Governing magazine, passengers in Phoenix take nearly 44,000 trips on light rail on a typical weekday -- beating the transit agency's estimates for ridership in 2020. This is happening in the hometown of the Goldwater Institute, btw.
"Long-neglected neighborhoods are experiencing new life, and major employers credit transit for their decision to add new jobs in the region," the article, by Daniel Vock, states. Phoenix's mayor, Greg Stanton, claims light rail has created 35,000 permanent jobs. It's such a hot commodity that Stanton is betting the public wants more of it by pushing for a sales tax increase, on Tuesday's ballot, that would pay to expand the system.
"The past decade has been a boom period for light rail in cities all across the South and West, from Charlotte to San Diego," Vock writes. "While older East Coast and Midwestern cities have largely struggled to find money to finance their existing rail systems, newer ones like Phoenix have embraced light rail as a way to revive their downtowns and close-in neighborhoods. Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles have been on a light rail building spree. Denver, Norfolk and Salt Lake City have made major commitments."
The success of light rail in these newer cities defies the rail critics who say it won't work in places that don't have a tradition of riding transit. It's a variation of the argument that "You can't get Floridians to give up their cars."
Meanwhile, cities that developed around the car keep having success with rail. In Atlanta, MARTA, the much-maligned rail system, is considering an $8 billion expansion of commuter rail. Why? One reason: "Corporations are increasingly demanding immediate proximity to transit stations," AJC.com reports. "State Farm did it when they came to (Atlanta). Mercedes did it. Worldplay did it when it relocated. Kaiser is going to be located two blocks from here because of the Arts Center station."
It's discouraging that in 2015, when 38 metro areas now have light rail, where light rail ridership has increased more than 53 percent over the past decade, when the latest U.S. Census Bureau survey shows millennials are driving less, Tampa Bay's leaders have concluded that residents here are just so special. Only here do residents refuse to get out of their cars. Only here will rail not work and it has no future.
Yeah, let's keep building roads and only roads. Let's see how that works.
*(UPDATE: Kevin Thurman, director of the pro-transit group Connect Tampa Bay, points out that the half-cent sales tax plan does include $41.23 million for a "rail project between downtown Tampa to International Plaza" [exact alignment to be determined upon completion of alternative analysis] and $50.8 million for expansion of Tampa's downtown streetcar system [exact alignment to be determined upon completion of alternative analysis]. Couple of observations: Ok, the sales tax proposal hasn't given up completely on rail, be it light rail or street cars. So we can build on that. But again, the striking thing is after decades of debate about rail, we still have no specifics about the rail routes, the lack of which was one reason (but not the main reason) why the 2010 referendum went down in flames. So this is hardly evidence that rail is imminent in Tampa Bay.)